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Photo: Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
Australian wetlands researchers behind the Feather Map invite citizen scientists to send feathers and include an explanation of where the feathers were found.

I recently saw a great quote on twitter from a Rhode Islander about what he learned years ago when he visited post-apartheid South Africa: “I learned that the power that you have to change big things is entirely about how strong of a community you can form.”

That quote came to mind as I was reading about how researchers in Australia are enlisting the enthusiasm of citizen scientists to address the challenges of wetlands protection. That may not sound as important as ending apartheid, but wetlands are expected to play a big role in the fight against global warming.

Livia Albeck-Ripka had a report at the New York Times.

“One day in April 2016, Kate Brandis opened a weathered envelope, mailed to her from suburban Sydney. Instead of a letter inside, she found the feathers of an Australian white ibis. A day or so later, another envelope arrived, stuffed with more feathers. In the days following, more began to come.

“Soon, Dr. Brandis, who is a research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Center for Ecosystem Science, was receiving three to four envelopes a day containing the feathers of birds from across Australia, including those of pelicans, wood ducks, cormorants, herons and spoonbills. …

“Two years before, she had put out a call to the public to send her fallen feathers of wetland birds so she could analyze where they came from, in an effort to map how the birds are moving between the country’s disappearing wetlands. …

“Wetlands — which include swamps, marshes, lakes, mud flats and bogs — are biodiverse ecosystems that can improve the quality of water and mitigate damage from flooding and pollution. But since the beginning of the 20th century, some estimates say, more than half the world’s wetlands have been lost, largely because of human activities. …

“Now, the impacts of climate change — which can include less rainfall in some areas, changing river flows and flood patterns, and potential saltwater intrusion into inland bodies of water — are further threatening some of Australia’s wetlands, and the birds that rely on them for breeding. …

“ ‘When our floodplains flood, which is only every couple of years, these birds come together in the hundreds of thousands to breed,’ Dr. Brandis said. But when the water recedes, the birds disband. …

“Where do the birds come from, and where do they go afterward? ‘Because we don’t track our birds, we have no idea,’ she said.

“Traditional tracking methods, like banding birds, have not fared well in Australia. … Many birds, like the ibis, have a high mortality rate. Another factor is simply Australia’s size: Inland birds often go to places where people do not.

“For that reason, Corrie Kemp, a 73-year-old retiree from Queanbeyan, New South Wales, made a special effort to collect feathers for Dr. Brandis’s project from among the most remote corners of Australia, in western Queensland. ‘We made a point of going places where no other people where going,’ Mrs. Kemp said, adding that she and her husband, Peter, had devoted an entire three-month trip to collecting feathers, during which she kept a diary of her discoveries and often corresponded with Dr. Brandis. …

“Bird feathers, like human hair and nails, are made of a protein called keratin. As the feathers grow, the keratin keeps a record of the bird’s diet, much like the rings of a tree. By analyzing a section of a feather, Dr. Brandis and her team can get a snapshot of the bird’s diet while the feather was developing.

“Feathers from chicks — which have spent their entire lives at one wetland — are particularly useful to researchers, providing what Dr. Brandis and her team call a ‘fingerprint’ of each place. By comparing the diet record of adult feathers against this information, researchers hope to map which wetlands the birds have been using, and how healthy those wetlands are. …

“Dr. Brandis said the possibilities were endless when studying animals’ tissue for clues about their environments, their habits and their origins. ‘It’s like the tip of the iceberg.’ ”

Read more about the Feather Map of Australia here and here.

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Photo: Marcus Teply/PRI
Dr. Andre Niemann with a partial model of his plan to turn Prosper-Haniel into a pumped storage system (basically a giant, water-powered battery). “It shows responsibility. It shows that if mining is over you’re not leaving the place.” 

Recently I read a sad story about a coal miner in the U.S. who once thought he and his infant son would have secure jobs long into the future. Now his mine is closing and he’s off to find another.

What’s sad to me is that although there are opportunities to retrain in up and coming industries, he and his family are chasing a dead one. But I can understand that he wants to keep earning six figures, a salary unlikely in most fields for which he might train.

Meanwhile, in Germany, people in an old coal town are biting the global-warming bullet and moving on.

Valerie Hamilton reports at PRI’s the World, “For most people, the top of the mine shaft at the Prosper-Haniel coal mine in Bottrop, Germany, just looks like a big black hole. But Andre Niemann looked into that hole and saw the future.

“Niemann leads the hydraulic engineering and water resources department at the University of Duisberg-Essen, in the heart of German coal country, western Germany’s Ruhr Valley. For more than 150 years, Germany mined millions of tons of anthracite, or hard coal, from coal mines here that at their peak employed half a million miners. But that’s history now — Germany’s government decided a decade ago to end subsidies that made German hard coal competitive with imports. …

“The end of hard coal mining in Germany comes just as Germany is working to slash its CO2 emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The country calls it the Energiewende, or ‘energy transition.’ But wind and solar aren’t always there when they’re needed, so a key challenge of the Energiewende is to find ways to store sun and wind energy for later use.

“One way to do that is with a pumped energy storage system — basically a giant, water-powered battery. When the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, the excess energy is used to pump large amounts of water uphill into a reservoir. When the sun goes down or the wind dies, that excess energy can be released by letting the water flow back downhill, through turbines that generate electricity like in a hydroelectric dam.

“Existing pump storage systems make use of hills or mountains for the necessary difference in altitude. But Niemann says the depth of a coal mine — like Prosper-Haniel — would work just as well.

“He and a team of researchers have worked up a plan to turn the mine into a pumped energy storage system that could generate 200 megawatts of power, enough for almost half a million homes. Water would be pumped through a closed system of pipes from 2,000 feet below ground level up to the surface and fall back down again on demand, regenerating 85 percent of the renewable energy used to pump the water up in the first place — energy that would otherwise be wasted. …

“Niemann, who grew up in a coal-mining family in the coal city of Ibbenbueren, says it would be a powerful symbol that as Germany transforms its energy landscape, coal regions won’t be left behind. …

“[Miner Ernst] Mueller explains the deal offered to him and every other mine worker in 2007, when the German government moved to end the subsidies that kept Germany’s hard coal mines afloat. …

“Underground workers over 50, and above-ground workers over 55, like Mueller, can retire early, paid by a company fund, as long as they have 20 years on the job. About 400 of their younger co-workers can stay on to maintain the mine area after it closes. The rest get job placement and training. Beike says [the company] promises to find every worker a new job. …

“The hope is, eventually, green business will pick up where coal left off. To prepare, the region has opened a new technical college in Bottrop to train the next generation of workers — not in coal, but in fields like green tech, water management and electro-mobility.”

More at Public Radio International, here.

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On the principle that “one and one and 50 make a million,” a better world relies on everybody pitching in. Ordinary people can help scientists and other leaders of worthy initiatives.

Lisa Mullins and Lynn Jolicoeur report at WBUR on one example.

“It’s a cloudy, cool July morning, and we’ve come to the docks at Fairhaven Shipyard, near New Bedford, to meet Chris Parks. She’s a tall, elegant, retired Boston banker in jeans and a sweatshirt.

“Parks is a volunteer with the Buzzards Bay Coalition. Residents formed the group 30 years ago to help the struggling bay.

“She’s got a plastic bottle attached to a long metal pole. She submerges it and fills it with sea water. Then she pulls out her tool box full of vials and chemicals. She mixes and measures.

“Parks determines the water is pretty cool on this day — 67 degrees. … In addition to temperature and clarity, Parks tests the water for how much salt and oxygen are in it. She’s been coming to this dock, fastidiously, one or two mornings a week for 17 years.

” ‘I’m doing it because it’s one of the few things that I can do that is a tangible task towards helping the environment,’ Parks says. ‘It’s a little bit of science that helps tell us what’s going on in Buzzards Bay.’

“What’s going on is that the water is warming — and that may be contributing to long-lasting pollution problems in the bay.”

Buzzards Bay Coalition science director Rachel Jakuba says, ” ‘If you have too much algae in the water, that’s when you get cloudy, murky water, loss of eel grass, low oxygen levels that make it hard for fish and shellfish to survive … Bay scallops are very rare now because part of their life cycle depends on eel grass blades.’

“The Buzzards Bay Coalition is attacking that pollution aggressively. It’s working with homeowners to upgrade their septic systems with technology that reduces nitrogen. …

“Jakuba says as researchers figure out how global warming fits into the bay pollution picture, citizen scientists will be key.

“Mark Sweitzer, 68, is a citizen scientist and lobsterman based at Point Judith in Galilee, Rhode Island. …

“Six times a month while he’s catching lobster, Sweitzer lowers a device to the bottom of the ocean — about 200 feet. It tracks the temperature and other characteristics of the water at every depth, and it syncs the data to an iPad on board. …

” ‘I’m just happy to do it, because I feel like I’m providing some information — even though it might not have immediate effect on my boat, but in long-term trends in the fishery and how it might influence policy or regulations,’ Sweitzer says. …’

” The settlers — the tiny little ones that are four days old that have reached the bottom — there is a temperature at which they will not survive … and there are temperatures at which we have an influx of fish. Black sea bass used to be primarily a mid-Atlantic fish. And now … the black sea bass are down there gobbling up these little lobsters that don’t have much of a chance to make it in the first place.’ ”

Read how other fishermen are noticing ocean changes before scientists do and reporting back, here.

We have a friend who sets lobster pots off New Shoreham, Rhode Island. His catch has gone down steadily over the past few years, so I know there is a problem.

Photo: Mark Degon/WBUR
Lobsterman Mark Sweitzer works out of Point Judith, Rhode Island.

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Photo: Simon Peter Fox 
Deakin University researchers bury the first of 50,000 teabags to be placed in wetlands around the globe as part of a project to monitor which wetlands do best at soaking up the carbon that causes global warming.

It’s reassuring to know that people will keep doing whatever they can for the environment no matter what. The increased carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming will not go away by itself. One approach to breaking it down could come from preserving wetlands.

Melissa Davey writes at the Guardian about Australian scientists who are using Lipton green tea bags and red tea “rooibos” bags to study how wetlands capture carbon and make it harmless.

“Australian scientists have launched a project to bury tens of thousands of teabags in wetlands around the world. …

“Lipton green tea and red tea ‘rooibos’ varieties will be used in the project, which already involves more than 500 scientists in every continent except Antarctica.

“Leader of the project, Peter Macreadie from Deakin University’s Blue Carbon Lab, said wetlands were important for carbon capture and storage, a process known as carbon sequestration, holding up to 50 times as much carbon by area as rainforests.

” ‘But some wetlands are much better at carbon storage than others, and some are in fact carbon emitters, so they’re not all fantastic,’ Macreadie said.

“ ‘We need to find out the best wetland environments for carbon sequestration so we know where we should invest our energy.’

“That’s where scientists have come up against barriers in the past. There are hundreds of thousands of wetlands around the world. A standardised technique for monitoring the carbon is needed for accurate comparison, and monitoring devices can cost thousands of dollars to install.

“But Macreadie had been reading scientific research about teabags being buried and used to measure the rate at which carbon was being released from soil into the atmosphere.

“Fast decay of the tea inside the bag meant more carbon was being released into the atmosphere, while slower decay meant the soil was holding the carbon.

“ ‘I thought, “Jeez this is a bloody good idea. Why aren’t we using it in wetlands?” ‘ Macreadie said.

“ ‘People think of innovation as involving fancy new technology, but sometimes the best ideas are the most simple ones.’ ” More here.

I wonder if this property of tea relates to another thing I’ve noticed. Loose tea seems to absorb the aroma of whatever is around it. I’ve often thought that if you wanted to remove, say, a burned smell from upholstery or clothing, tea (not brewed) could do the trick.

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What is it about Nordic countries that they seem to find more solutions to global challenges than the rest of us? Do they have fewer challenges to worry them, better education, more ability to focus?

Here are some of their successful and replicable tactics for combating global warming.

Christian Bjørnæs writes at Cicero, “By scaling up just 15 proven Nordic solutions, countries all over the world can save 4 [gigatons] of emissions every year by 2030, which is as much as the EU produces today. The costs for this scale-up equal the amount spent in just 9 days on fossil fuel subsidies.

“These results come from the Nordic Green to Scale study which was launched during the UN Climate Conference in Marrakech. …

“ ‘The main concern decision makers have is that it’s either too difficult or too expensive to rapidly reduce emissions,’ says Senior Advisor Oras Tynkkynen, who led the Nordic Green to Scale analysis on behalf of [the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra].

“ ‘Our objective with this study is to highlight what different countries have already achieved on climate action and what other countries can learn from their successes.’ …

“Urban Danes cycle on an average almost 3 km every day. If other countries followed the example of Denmark and promoted cycling in cities, it would reduce emissions by almost as much as Slovakia produces in a year.

“In Finland, most of industrial and district heating is provided with energy efficient combined heat and power production (CHP). If other countries used CHP like this, it would reduce emissions by almost as much as Japan produces in a year.

“Iceland produces almost 30% of its electricity and most of its heat with geothermal energy. If countries with significant geothermal potential started using it like Iceland does, it would reduce emissions by more than Denmark produces in a year.

“Last year, almost every fourth new car sold in Norway was an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. If other wealthy countries used as many electric vehicles as Norway does, it would reduce emissions by almost as much as Denmark produces in a year.

“Sweden has the world’s highest number of heat pumps per population. Scaling up the solution to selected European countries would cut emissions by as much as Cuba produces every year.

“In addition to direct emission reductions, the 15 solutions also create considerable co-benefits. These include improved air and water quality, higher energy security, more local jobs, lower fuel bills, less traffic jams, and sustained biodiversity.”

More here.

Photo: Cicero
Biking can help reduce global warming.

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As costs come down, solar and wind energy are being embraced in interesting places. Stereotypes about Texas and Big Oil will have to go.

Matthew Rozsa reports at Salon, “The notion that Texas might become a hub for renewable energy innovation isn’t that new. As Forbes noted earlier this month, Texas — which produces 37 percent of America’s crude oil and 28 percent of its natural gas — has more than 10,000 wind turbines, allowing it to produce more power from wind than the combined power produced by 25 other states from all energy sources.

“Similarly, The Wall Street Journal reported [in 2015] that Texas expects more than 10,000 megawatts of solar-generating capacity to be installed across the state by 2029, which is almost the size of all the operational solar farms in the United States today.”

Rozsa quotes Texans who were interviewed by Voice of America in October:

“ ‘A lot of wind companies have evolved to include solar and wind because solar has become so cheap. It is quite competitive with not only wind, but with fossil [fuel] generation,’ said Andy Bowman, chairman of Pioneer Green Energy.

“This point of view was echoed by Jennifer Ronk, a renewable energy expert at the Houston Advanced Research Center. ‘There is a lot of research being done, a lot of development being done,’ she argued. … ‘I think there is a mix of solutions that are going to be the optimal outcome.’ ”

I’m pretty sure that cost factors will ensure the continuation of renewable-energy research — if only at the state level.

Photo: Getty/Spencer Platt
Turbines at a wind farm in Colorado City, Texas, Jan. 21, 2016.

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Small tree farms are now eligible to sell carbon credits, which can supplement or even replace logging income. But to many owners, getting into the market looks pretty daunting. In a recent article in the New York Times, Erica Goode explains how the obstacles can be overcome.

“Lately, [Eve] Lonnquist, 59 and recently retired, has been thinking about the future of her family’s land. Like many small-forest owners, they draw some income from logging and would like to keep doing so. But they would also like to see the forest, with its stands of Douglas fir, alder and cherry, protected from clear-cutting or being sold off to developers.

“ ‘For us, the property is our family’s history,’ she said.

“More than half of the 751 million acres of forestland in the United States are privately owned, most by people like Ms. Lonnquist, with holdings of 1,000 acres or less. These family forests, environmental groups argue, represent a large, untapped resource for combating the effects of climate change.

“Conserving the trees and profiting from them might seem incompatible. But Ms. Lonnquist is hoping to do both by capitalizing on the forest’s ability to clean the air, turning the carbon stored in the forest into credits that can then be sold to polluters who want or need to offset their carbon footprints.

“ ‘Trees are the No. 1 way in which carbon can be removed from the atmosphere and stored in vegetation over the long term,’ said Brian Kittler, the western regional office director for the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, which has a program in Oregon to help the owners of family forests develop potentially profitable carbon projects. …

“The carbon credits from Ms. Lonnquist’s forest could bring an estimated $235,000 over the first six years, and about $6,000 a year after that, said Kyle Holland, the managing director of Ecological Carbon Offset Partners, a California firm that helps small-forest owners enter the carbon markets. …

“Recent developments in forestry may help make the prospect more appealing by lowering the initial costs to landholders. Mr. Holland’s company, for example, has developed a digital tool — a smartphone equipped with a laser to measure distance and an inclinometer to measure height — that he believes will greatly reduce the expense of conducting a forest inventory, which typically costs $40,000 to $100,000 or more, depending about the amount of land.

“With the specialized smartphone, landholders can take an inventory themselves, photographing and measuring the diameters and heights of their trees. The photos and data are sent to the company’s office in California, where an expert forester goes through the images, identifying the species and checking for damage to the branches or crowns, among other things. Probability models are used to calculate the amount of carbon stored in the forest.”

Hmmm. I wonder if this smartphone app could also be used by towns like Arlington, where John and other volunteers are conducting a tree inventory, not for selling carbon credits but for beautification plans.

More at the New York Timeshere.

Photo: American Forest Foundation

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