Mason’s Climate Change Commitment

Until very recently at the “Let’s Talk About Climate Change” event, I had no idea that so many of Mason’s sustainability programs stemmed from the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment signed in 2007. I was aware that this commitment hoped to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, but its tangible impacts are far more impressive.

These commitments include all Mason buildings meeting the silver standard of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This includes extensive recycling practices, cleaner air filtration systems, and energy-efficient design. The Cue bus and Mason shuttles also sprung from this commitment, in addition to other incentives for students and faculty to utilize  alternative transportation. Mason also participates in mandatory reporting every two years to measure Mason’s emissions, but also access academic programs that discuss sustainability.

The Office of Sustainability was established as part of this commitment. According to our dear friend Roger, the Office of Sustainability serves as a “bridge between facilities, so what’s happening on the operational side of campus, and the student life aspect.” This office works to host events, work with sustainable academic programs and create internship opportunities.Without Mason’s formal commitment to climate neutrality, our LLC, Earth Month events, and other outreach programs may not have existed.

The Patriot Green Fund (PGF) was also created as a result of Mason’s commitment to climate neutrality. This program allocates $100,000 for research and infrastructure projects on campus. Projects that I had previously assumed were sponsored by Mason itself were actually projects through the PGF. These include the Innovation Food Forest, Piedmont Rain Garden (shout-out to Julie), eWaste Collection in the Johnson Center and the Hydroponic Greenhouse at President’s Park.

Though we have been lucky enough to enjoy these programs all year, past Mason students have not. It is amazing what Mason and its students have been able to accomplish in less than a decade.

More Than Politics

In the political chaos of the Middle East, cultural warfare and societal conflict immediately over-shadow any environmental impacts. However, it is important to keep ecological casualties in mind when tallying the costs of international conflict and internal uncertainty.

Human intervention has made a great impact on the survival of marshes in both destruction and restoration. The region of former Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) surrounding the Euphrates and Tigris rivers was spotted with healthy marshes prior to the 1950s. As dams and the popularity of hydroelectricity boomed, many of these wetlands disappeared. The areas once covered with thriving marshes were dammed for flood control, canals, and agricultural reservoirs used for irrigation. These marshes sustained further damage in the 1990s at the hands of Saddam Hussein (former President of Iraq, 1979-2003). Upon his orders, vast areas of wetlands were drained to impede upon anti-government rebellions against his political leadership.

In the political turmoil following the end of Hussein’s rule, numerous dykes were destroyed and marshes re-flooded. Although these marshes were not originally healthy (as many of them lacked aquatic vegetation), the wetlands showed significant progress between 2004 and 2005 as signs of algae growth appeared. However, by 2008 the marshes still failed to thrive in comparison to healthy wetlands. Muddy, reddish water plagued the region, showing the ecological consistency of puddles rather than wetland ecosystems. The political and social conflict surrounding Iraq during this time can be evidenced even in the region’s water sources today.

Field research conducted by the United Nations with the collaboration of Iraqi and American scientists showed a “remarkable rate of reestablishment’ within the marshes, though their gradual restoration will continue for decades. Officials report that the affected wetlands are ecologically isolated, susceptible to local extinctions, and at risk due to low diversity. Although the discovery of algae formation presents researchers with hopes of recovery, the marshes will continue to struggle and remain unhealthy for several decades.

Environmental Journalism

Journalism by definition, is a concise, accurate way of providing the public with an objective view of current events. Though I see an “objective” point of view as the most important foundation of journalism, its consistency is hardly ever the case. Talk shows, news reports, documentaries, and even investigative research often show a decisive skew in reporting.

This is, often apparent in environmental journalism. The Press Gazette asked the UK’s green journalists to rate their peers on their journalistic abilities. These rating were then compiled into a list of the top ten journalists in the UK. As I filed through this list of esteemed environmental journalists, I was surprisingly pleased to see how many of these writers refrained from biased language. Many of these journalists presented the facts, and most presented both sides of environmental situations.

John Vidal, the current environmental editor of The Guardian, presented his stories from a scientific point of view. He seems to provide the answers to all the right questions and interpret data in logical, objective ways. Leo Hickman, another book author and reporter for The Guardian, focuses on climate change and how societies interact with the surrounding environment. Although his articles are littered with phrases such as “Hell would glaciate before the WMO would consider such a request,” Hickman usually predates his own opinions with signal phrases. By adding “in my opinion” and “I think” to his articles, Hickman is able to offer a window into his own expertise without misleading his readers into thinking he is presenting actual facts.

However, George Monbiot (coincidently another frequent writer for The Guardian) often presents his own opinions as fact, uses sarcastic phrases in his story-telling, and leaves holes in his delivery of factual information. In describing a new policy by a British government official, he included “She capped this madness by announcing…” to illustrate her policies on flood control. In one of his articles, the science behind the environmental uses of controlled forest burns was not even explained before he utterly condemned its use.

George Monbiot is actually #1 on this list of the UK’s best environmental journalists. His recent work is highly opinionated and reads like persuasion pieces rather than classic pieces of environmental journalism. This is, in part, due to his colorful career. Monbiot began by producing investigative documentaries for the BBC until his work was shut down. Then, in 1987, he proceeded to spend six months in West Papua researching for a book that eventually exposed Suharto’s transmigration program in Indonesia where he was held at gunpoint, and once lived off rats for several days to avoid starvation while lost in the central highlands. The rest of his career has been one grand adventure after another followed by a ground-breaking story. This guy definitely has the wow factor.

But that doesn’t explain why Monbiot was rated by his peers as the top environmental journalist in the United Kingdom. I would personally like to know whether his massive exploits are simply excusing him for some sloppy journalistic mistakes, or Monbiot’s writing is invaluable for a reason that I simply don’t yet understand.

Starving Ecosystems Through Beach Nourishment

A few weeks ago a friend of mine excitedly explained her epic spring-break beach plans to me. I immediately questioned her on the beach she was visiting and its history of beach nourishment. Based upon her incredulous look, not everyone knows about beach nourishment. Though I don’t like to be a buzz-kill, I feel like I have to drop some knowledge on the ecosystem degradation caused by commercial beaches.

Beaches not only serve as a vacation hotspot for millions of tourists around the world, but also as important protections for people living and working close to coastlines. The severity of beach erosion differs from area to area depending on climate, tide patterns, class of sand, human intervention, and submerged currents. The loss of beach area can result in economic devastation for communities that rely on the health of their beaches.

Beach nourishment is the relocation of sediment to an eroding coastline in order to create a new beach or increase the width of an existing beach. Though this process does not stop erosion, the increased sand volume slows further deterioration of the beach itself. Because newly transplanted sand erodes up to three times faster than naturally occurring sand, the beach must again be renourished before the end of its “lifetime.” This is enough to protect businesses and other structures near the beach, but does not necessarily provide safe beaches for wildlife.

In order for beach nourishment to make a safe impact, the project must be carefully managed. Sediment that does not match the original sand particles is often used for nourishment. A “perfect match” is nearly impossible to find when considering both grain-size and sand composition. Even small differences in the size of sand particles can alter wave patterns on the beach, transforming its shape very quickly. During beach nourishment, the area resembles a construction zone. Bulldozers can bury marine life to destroy insects, turtles, and shorebirds. Plants that ironically help to fight natural erosion are uprooted or smothered with newly-added sand. The increased turbidity can also threaten vital nurseries for aquatic organisms, as  displace sediment suffocates the vulnerable young.

Altering the natural geography of a  beach can also prove hazardous. Beach inclines are often made steeper by beach nourishment, making it impossible for sea turtles to climb and lay their eggs. Other species that rely on natural formation of sand dunes can also find themselves without nesting grounds. On the other hand, beach renourishment offers additional area to valuable migration and breeding grounds for coastal birds. During beach nourishment, the area is destroyed, but the process also protects the existence of these areas in the long-term.

Seismic Consequences for Whale Populations

I recently met a student at George Mason whose sole passion in life is to “save the whales.” She spoke with such conviction about how beautiful they are and the importance of preserving their populations. Such specific goals pertaining to the protection of a singular area or species have always seemed oddly close-minded to me. There are much larger issues to study that will help  a multitude of unsustainable situations, and I feel that such specific interests can lead to a loss in interdisciplinary communication. However, after looking farther into certain aspects of whale cruelty, I certainly understand the importance of people who are passionate about their topics and possess the strength to pursue them.

The increasing human demand for oil has spurned thousands of consequences in foreign conflict, economic stability, social shift, and environmental damage. The resources necessary to locate, harvest, refine, and transport the oil burned every day are monumental. Although global estimates on “how much oil we have left” are relatively consistent, nations and private companies are constantly searching for new untapped sources. Oil drilling in oceans has become a perceived necessity, and the resulting increase in the technique of sound blasting is placing marine populations at risk.

Seismic airguns are used to shoot pressurized blasts of air underwater in order to detect pockets of gas and oil along the ocean floor. The blasts continue every 10 to 12 seconds for weeks or even months at a time.

Aquatic animals, and specifically whales, depend upon their hearing to survive. Breeding, migration patterns, communication, and food location are all dependent upon auditory function. These sound canons emit sound waves a thousand times more powerful than jet engines and can cause irreversible damage to surrounding populations. Even at 300 miles away from the original source, the sonar used to detect oil is loud enough to retain an intensity of 140 decibels.  A mere 140 decibels has been seen to noticeably alter whale behavior. Air cannon geologic surveys conducted along the coast of California were detected on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

In 2002, four species of whales were found beached in the Bahamas, far from their natural migration routes. Many of these whales suffered from  severe trauma: bleeding around the brain and other tissues coupled with large unnatural bubbles lodged in their organs. All of these injuries are attributed to the use of seismic airguns. When whale species do not alter their migration routes because of the harmful sound blasts, other species do. Common food sources of whales have been found to flee a region as air cannons arrive, forcing whales to leave behind their breeding grounds in order to survive. This temporary diversion can lead to the permanent disruption of whales’ natural compasses.

The U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) organization has also used this strategy to map the ocean floors. In 2014, the USGS announced plans to survey the continental shelf from Maine south to Georgia. These plans have failed to launch, as government officials assess the potential risks to marine life. Similar blocks to the use of air cannons for locating oil and natural gas have been placed in the United States until the country can measure the risks.

Why Boreal Worms are Not a Thing

I have a huge (verging on unhealthy) appreciation for earthworms that I mistakenly assume all of my friends share. Yesterday I was caught in a Youtube vortex that began with watershed education and ended with the mythical giant worms of southern Australia that stretch eight feet in length. Though most people generally understand that earthworms are important to healthy soil, their presence is not necessary for every ecosystem.

Healthy boreal forests do not naturally contain earthworms, but non-native worms are so often introduced to these areas that they are commonly overlooked as an invasive species. Healthy forests contain clear subterranean levels between soil and organic matter. Each level contains unique nutrients and host a similarly unique variety of bacterial organisms.

When earthworms are present, these levels within soil become blurred. Worm activity causes chemical reactions that shift the nutrient dynamics beneath the leaf litter, causing keystone forest plants to struggle or fail altogether. Worms also eat through the roots just below the soil’s surface, making it very difficult for important grasses to survive as the soil pH changes. As the balance between organic and inorganic decomposition shifts, the invertebrates inhabiting the soil die and can fail to repopulate. This population change causes forest floor plants to die off, and leaves the area vulnerable to invasive plant species.

As worms consume dead roots, leaves, grasses, manure, and soil, their digestive system concentrates the organic material in the food they eat. Worm excrement is far richer in available nutrients than the surrounding soil, and their extended presence can transform soil composition. This increases the nitrogen and other essential minerals that plants are able to access. The corpses of deceased earthworms also decompose very rapidly and add to nitrogen content of soil. While this resulting rich soil is desireable in man-made gardens, boreal forests do not require nutrient-dense soil. These increased nutrients lead to increasing populations of small plants and shrubs along the forest floor, but fail to support larger vegetation.

Healthy boreal forests in their true form survive with very low nutrient levels in their soils. Pines thrive in sandy soils, and other species are similarly adapted. These healthy forests lack brush and small plants along their forest floor and remain dominated by boreal tree species. As earthworm populations invade a boreal forest, brush begins to grow and alter the natural ecology of the forest. This phenomenon is so common throughout North America that these forests are domestically considered to be “healthy” boreal forests. In reality, earthworm-infested areas of boreal forest are more prone to erosion, species failures,  soil degradation, and collapse.

I have watched this video over a dozen time and it still makes my day. This woman loves worms so much, her excitement is contagious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZHTerOJYMA

I also used this article as a point of reference to reinforce my scientific knowledge: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150422104041.htm

 

Although this does not relate directly to my post, I find leech worms fascinating. I discovered this video last Christmas and proceeded to show everyone I know. Try to get past the creepy and focus on what amazing creatures these are: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fGGz6d3vC4