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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: I've heard a lot about the Burning Man festival of late. Can you shed light on just how "green" or not-so-green this event really is? – B.L. Pepper, Seattle, WA

Burning Man, the annual arts and music festival held in the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Desert, has garnered global attention for its avant-garde art, radical self-expression, and the temporary city it builds each year, called Black Rock City. However, when it comes to the festival's environmental footprint, opinions are as diverse as the event's attendees' eclectic outfits.

One of the most substant biggest environmental impacts of Burning Man is transportation. Attendees trek from all corners of the globe to reach the remote desert location, and many do so via gas-guzzling vehicles, resulting in a significant carbon footprint. Some burners mitigate this impact by carpooling, arriving by bus or bicycle or participating in organizer-led ridesharing programs.

Building a temporary city for tens of thousands of people necessitates a considerable number of resources. Construction materials, generators, and fuel for transportation within Black Rock City are among the many necessities. While efforts have been made to reduce waste and reuse materials, the event's construction process still takes a toll on the environment.

Burning Man preaches a "leave no trace" ethos, asking participants to pack out everything they bring in. Most attendees cooperate, but instances of litter and improper waste disposal do occur. The event provides recycling and composting options, but managing waste in such a remote location is a challenge.

Powering the numerous art installations, camps and events at Burning Man also uses substantial energy. Strides have been made to use solar and other renewable sources, but the event's overall energy usage is significant. Some burners bring solar panels and promote sustainability within their camps.

A hallmark of Burning Man is its striking art installations, many of which are temporary and may not prioritize long-term sustainability. Some of these creations are burned during the festival's climax, releasing emissions and creating waste.

Despite these environmental challenges, the Burning Man organization has made strides in recent years to address sustainability concerns. They have initiated programs like the "Green Man" theme camp, which focuses on environmental education and sustainable practices. Additionally, a Sustainability Department was established to promote eco-friendly initiatives and reduce the festival's environmental footprint.

Furthermore, attendees themselves play a crucial role in shaping Burning Man's environmental impact. The "Leave No Trace" principle is taken seriously by many, and countless burners are actively working to reduce their ecological footprint and promote sustainable practices within the temporary city.

Burning Man is a unique event with a complex environmental profile. While it undeniably leaves an imprint on the environment, it also serves as a platform for discussions on sustainability, artistic expression and community building.


CONTACTS: Burning Man, burningman.org; Burning Man breakdown: How much pollution is the festival emitting? thestreet.com/travel/burning-man-breakdown-how-much-pollution-is-the-festival-emitting.

Dear EarthTalk: What can I do this fall to ensure my garden looks its best next spring?

-- Jane B., Boston, MA

Preparing your garden in the fall is an important step to ensure it's in ideal condition for the next spring. Depending on the size and scope of your garden, you might have a lot to do...

Cleaning up and removing any dead plants, weeds and debris from your garden beds now helps prevent diseases and pests from overwintering. Prune any dead or overgrown branches from trees and shrubs. Also, trim back perennials and grasses to about 2-3 inches above the ground. Rather than discarding fallen leaves and garden debris, consider composting them to create nutrient-rich compost for future use.

If you have perennials that have become overcrowded, fall is a great time to divide and transplant them to rejuvenate the plants and improve their health. If you have tender perennials, shrubs or trees that are susceptible to winter damage, consider protecting them with burlap or other insulating materials.

Consider testing your soil to determine its nutrient and pH levels. This will help you know what soil amendments are needed. Based on results, add organic matter like compost, well-rotted manure or leaf mulch to improve soil structure and fertility. Incorporate these amendments into the top 6-8 inches of soil. And it’s never too late to apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch over your garden beds to help retain moisture, regulate soil and suppress weeds. Use organic mulch like wood chips, straw or shredded leaves.

Fall is the ideal time to plant spring-flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils and crocuses. Follow planting depth and spacing guidelines for each type of bulb. Likewise, many perennial flowers and herbs—daylilies, peonies, lavender—can be planted in the fall so they have time to establish strong root systems before the growing season starts in the spring. Fall is also an excellent time to plant deciduous trees and shrubs because they can focus on root development without the energy demands of leaves. And if you’re growing food crops that like cooler temperatures—broccoli, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, spinach, carrots—get them in the ground this fall for an early spring harvest.

Also, continue regular lawn care, including mowing, fertilizing and aerating. Fall is a good time for overseeding if your lawn needs it. Keep watering your garden as needed until the ground freezes. Plants still need water even as the weather cools down.

Most important, use the fall season to plan your garden for the next spring. Consider what new plants you want to add, any changes in design and any additional improvements. Address any pest or disease issues before winter. Prune and dispose of affected plant material, and consider applying appropriate treatments. If you have bare garden beds, consider planting cover crops like clover or rye to improve soil health and prevent erosion over the winter.

By taking these steps in the fall, you'll set the stage for a thriving garden in the spring. Proper preparation and care during the fall months will help your plants establish strong root systems and ensure they have the nutrients they need for vigorous growth when warmer weather arrives.

CONTACTS: Penn State Extension Fall Garden Tasks, extension.psu.edu/fall-garden-tasks

Fall Vegetable Garden Cleanup Checklist, almanac.com/fall-vegetable-garden-cleanup-11-things-do-now.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the kerfuffle over uranium mining near the Grand Canyon?

-- P.L.K., via e-mail

Since the 1950s when uranium was discovered below the desert in the Grand Canyon region of Arizona, land managers, resource extractors, environmentalists and locals have debated the ecological impacts of mining this heavy metal that serves as an abundant source of concentrated energy for nuclear power plants and other applications. The Grand Canyon is a World Heritage Site and a protected national park; worries that uranium mining in the area could harm the environment and the park's natural resources are central to the debate. Meanwhile, uranium mining in the region poses a serious threat to the native people like the Havasupai who have called the Grand Canyon home for centuries.

In 2012, the Havasupai worked with then President Barack Obama for a 20-year moratorium on uranium mining in the region because the mining could threaten the tribe’s only water source, Havasu Creek. The harmful tailings from the mining, loaded with heavy metals, could contaminate the creek, rendering the water non-potable. Operations would also endanger sacred and cultural sites. And so, the danger to the Havasupai land seemed to be diverted.

But the can was only kicked further down the road: As climate change continues to rage on, interest in nuclear energy has resurfaced, and mining companies have started nosing around the Grand Canyon region again, this time just outside of the national park where uranium reserves are reportedly abundant without the red tape of being on federally protected land.

Furthermore, mining companies say they can go about their business with minimal impact given the advent of better mining technology. Energy Fuels Resources, the company that owns the only claim in the Grand Canyon area, says they can operate without affecting the groundwater, and that they are just as dedicated to preserving the land as everyone else. Local Arizonians also support the mining, with local officials preaching about the stimulating effect the operation would have on the local economy.

However, the miners have been faced with some pushback by Democrats and the White House. The land surrounding the Canyon makes up less than two percent of uranium reserves in the U.S., so why not look elsewhere? President Biden took executive action on the issue, using the Antiquities Act to create the “Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument,” a massive 900,000 acre preserve to federally protect the lands of tribes like the Havasupai. And although it won’t completely shut down all mining operations outside the Canyon—claims to nearby Pinyon Plain have been affirmed by the federal courts—the monument does stand as a victory for native tribes in the region. It appears that the native people have struck gold in protecting their culture and identity for the near future.


CONTACTS: New national monument comes after more than a decade of advocacy by Native nations, npr.org/2023/08/08/1192556327/new-national-monument-comes-after-more-than-a-decade-of-advocacy-by-native-natio; Biden Protects Land by Grand Canyon but Will Still Allow Mining, bnanews.bna.com/environment-and-energy/bidens-grand-canyon-monument-declaration-wont-block-all-mining-1; Keeping uranium mining out of the Grand Canyon, grandcanyontrust.org/grand-canyon-uranium.

Dear EarthTalk: How can I be a more environmentally responsible parent? – Betsy E., Boston, MA

Sustainable parenting isn’t easy given all the ways modern society has become largely a profusion of disposable products. Besides making conscious decisions about the products you buy, you also have to think about teaching your kids to do the right thing—and you can never start too early.

One way to do the right thing by the planet is opting for reusable diapers. The average American baby uses 7,000 disposable diapers over the course of a typical three-year run. Some 200,000 trees are cut down each year in the U.S. alone to provide the wood pulp found in diapers. To make matters worse, the diaper’s plastic and absorbent polymers are not recyclable.

Nowadays you can purchase reusable diapers at a local Walmart or Target, or online. Popular brands include Cotton Babies, Nora’s Nursery and Green Mountain. Many people are concerned about the washing process, but it is relatively simple. For liquid waste, you should pre-rinse the diaper with water. For solid waste, you should allocate a spatula or knife as a “scraper” and dispose of the waste in the toilet. You can purchase a dry pail to hold the diapers until laundry day. Keep in mind, reusable diapers must be washed with water that is at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) to kill bacteria.

Another environmental hazard of parenthood is baby wet wipes. Almost all, even the “flushable” ones, contain microplastics which do not biodegrade. This causes buildup in pipes because grease tends to accumulate on the plastic. Also, these microplastics can get into local water bodies and be ingested by marine wildlife. A solution is to create your own reusable wet wipes. Buy cotton or bamboo baby washcloths and cut them into eight-inch by eight-inch squares. For the wipe solution, oft-used ingredients include aloe vera, gentle baby wash or Castile soap, natural oils, and water. Other recipes can be found online. You can keep this solution in a spray bottle to use when needed. Store not-yet-used wipes in a clean airtight container. Spray them thoroughly with the solution before use. Store soiled wipes in a dry pail until you do laundry. As with reusable diapers, you should scrape off solid waste before washing.

Another major source of waste from kids is toys, most of which are made of cheap plastic and end up landfills. According to the Yale Environmental Review, toys constitute six percent of landfill plastics worldwide. Today, there are many online services where you can order a monthly subscription for rentable plastic and wooden toys. If your child gets bored, you can send the old toys in and receive new ones in the mail in the matter of days. The toys that you send in are sanitized and sent to other families.

Aside from these options, you could also make homemade food to reduce packaging waste. Buying second-hand clothes is also a simple and cheaper way to reduce your landfill footprint. But arguably, the most important thing you can do is to educate your children about environmental issues and encourage sustainable practices.


CONTACTS: How to be a sustainable parent, bbc.com/future/article/20221123-how-to-be-a-sustainable-parent; Most materials are recyclable, so why can’t children’s toys be sustainable? environment-review.yale.edu/most-materials-are-recyclable-so-why-cant-childrens-toys-be-sustainable; Should We Ditch Wet Wipes? envirotech-online.com/news/water-wastewater/9/breaking-news/should-we-ditch-wet-wipes/46063.

Dear EarthTalk: Why do environmentalists hate fracking so much? -- Millie C., Pittsburgh, PA

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a method of extracting natural gas. It was invented in the 1940s, but gained popularity in the past two decades, particularly in the U.S. This is because most conventional natural gas reservoirs that can be extracted using traditional methods have been depleted. In 2001, 25 percent of U.S. natural gas was extracted via fracking. By 2022, this grew to almost 80 percent.

Let's delve into the fracking process. Initially, a deep shaft is drilled into the ground, typically hundreds of meters, until it reaches shale rock formations where natural gas and petroleum are trapped in small pockets. Then, a horizontal hole is created throughout the shale. In an typical fracking operation, some four million gallons of fracking fluid—freshwater, sand and numerous chemicals—is driven through the hole using high-pressure pumps to fracture the rock and release the natural gas. After the natural gas is collected, the used fracking fluid, known as flowback, is removed and stored in an underground well.

Flowback fluid is extremely poisonous. It consists of hundreds of chemicals, including lubricants, acids and disinfectants, as well as numerous toxins and carcinogens, such as benzene, radium and heavy metals. The water used cannot be recycled, exacerbating water scarcity. The true toxicity remains unknown due to drilling regulations allowing the concealment of chemicals as Confidential Business Information.

Nonetheless, the impacts are evident. Livestock and pets die due to wastewater exposure; marine wildlife suffer when the fluid enters water bodies. A series of ProPublica reports showed a link between fracking and drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio and Wyoming. An experiment in West Virginia revealed severe harm to vegetation, killing most plants and half the trees in the tested area.

Fracking emissions, such as methane, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, are linked to severe health issues like nausea, migraines, birth defects, low birth weights and weight gain. A study in Yale's Environmental Health Perspectives reported that young Pennsylvania children (ages two to seven) residing near fracking sites faced a two to threefold higher risk of being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia compared to those living farther away.

Fracking is much more polluting than conventional drilling, which does not require the use of fluids to crack rock layers. “As much as eight percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well—up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production,” Robert Howarth of Cornell University estimated. To put this into perspective, methane exhibits a greenhouse gas potency 105 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Let’s hope scientists find new ways of making renewable energy more accessible so society can begin moving away from natural gas and other fossil fuels.


CONTACTS: As Evidence Mounts, New Concerns About Fracking and Health, e360.yale.edu/features/fracking-gas-chemicals-health-pennsylvania; Surface Water Vulnerable to Widespread Pollution From Fracking, a New Study Finds, insideclimatenews.org/news/20082021/water-fracking-pollution-study; Fracking’s Environmental Impacts: Water, greenpeace.org/usa/fighting-climate-chaos/issues/fracking/environmental-impacts-water/.

Dear EarthTalk: How are recent heat waves around the world affecting wildlife? – T.C., via email

 

It would be hard to ignore the heat waves that have plagued North America, Europe and Asia in recent months. If you did not experience them yourself, chances are that you read about them, or their effects. Abnormal thermal extremes like this have become more regular, intense and long-lasting over the last few decades as global temperatures have risen. In addition to their severe consequences for vulnerable human communities, heat waves have a drastic effect on many wildlife populations. While there is no one single consequence felt by all wildlife populations, heat waves universally disrupt the ecosystems where they occur, which, due to the interconnectedness of biodiversity, has implications for all living things.

 

Heat waves are different from the rising global average temperature. They are the peak, extreme, temperatures that happen for a finite duration of time. If the global average temperature warms by 4.4 C (the highest emission scenario projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 41 percent of species will experience extreme heat waves. But if global average temperature maxes out at 1.8 C of warming (the IPCC identifies 1.5C of warming to be the lowest emissions scenario), only 6.1 percent of species will experience extreme heat waves. 

 

In any circumstance, the change in wellbeing or population size of one species in a local area sets off a ripple effect in that ecosystem. The secondary consequences of heat waves’ effect on oyster populations are a case in point. Heat waves reduce oyster population size as oysters are a stationary species and cannot move from uninhabitable water temperatures. When at a healthy population size, oysters limit algal bloom and are thus key to ensuring consistent oxygen levels in bodies of water. Therefore, experts warn of consequences for other marine animals in those bodies of water now faced with reduced oxygen levels. 

 

Some wildlife populations, particularly insects, have actually increased in size due to heat waves over the last few decades. The length of mosquito season has increased in some parts of the world by 30 days or more over the last four decades, spiking reproduction rates and therefore population size. However, for some regions in the Southern hemisphere that are already very hot, increased temperature and dryness has actually shortened mosquito season, prompting a dip in reproduction rates.

 

In addition to mass mortality events, certain wildlife populations have been forced to migrate or change existing migration patterns. In the ocean and other bodies of water, the phenomenon that occurs when species migrate due to temporary changes in ocean surface temperatures caused by marine heatwaves is called thermal displacement. Some groups of non-stationary species like whales or sea turtles have moved tens of thousands of kilometers to reach a new region at their preferred temperature. This changes the food chain and equilibrium of the ecosystem they have moved to and that they have moved from.

 

Ultimately, global average temperature rise will have many of the same effects on wildlife populations, but recent heat waves have had large effects in a small fraction of the time. Limiting global average temperature rise will limit the extremity of heat waves and reduce potential consequences for wildlife. 


CONTACTS: Mitigation pathways compatible with 1.5°C in the context of sustainable development, .ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/chapter-2/; With Temperatures Rising, Can Animals Survive the Heat Stress? e360.yale.edu/features/with-temperatures-rising-can-animals-survive-the-heat-stress.

Dear EarthTalk: How are recent heat waves around the world affecting wildlife? – T.C., via email

It would be hard to ignore the heat waves that have plagued North America, Europe and Asia in recent months. If you did not experience them yourself, chances are that you read about them, or their effects. Abnormal thermal extremes like this have become more regular, intense and long-lasting over the last few decades as global temperatures have risen. In addition to their severe consequences for vulnerable human communities, heat waves have a drastic effect on many wildlife populations. While there is no one single consequence felt by all wildlife populations, heat waves universally disrupt the ecosystems where they occur, which, due to the interconnectedness of biodiversity, has implications for all living things.

Heat waves are different from the rising global average temperature. They are the peak, extreme, temperatures that happen for a finite duration of time. If the global average temperature warms by 4.4 C (the highest emission scenario projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 41 percent of species will experience extreme heat waves. But if global average temperature maxes out at 1.8 C of warming (the IPCC identifies 1.5C of warming to be the lowest emissions scenario), only 6.1 percent of species will experience extreme heat waves.

In any circumstance, the change in wellbeing or population size of one species in a local area sets off a ripple effect in that ecosystem. The secondary consequences of heat waves’ effect on oyster populations are a case in point. Heat waves reduce oyster population size as oysters are a stationary species and cannot move from uninhabitable water temperatures. When at a healthy population size, oysters limit algal bloom and are thus key to ensuring consistent oxygen levels in bodies of water. Therefore, experts warn of consequences for other marine animals in those bodies of water now faced with reduced oxygen levels.

Some wildlife populations, particularly insects, have actually increased in size due to heat waves over the last few decades. The length of mosquito season has increased in some parts of the world by 30 days or more over the last four decades, spiking reproduction rates and therefore population size. However, for some regions in the Southern hemisphere that are already very hot, increased temperature and dryness has actually shortened mosquito season, prompting a dip in reproduction rates.

In addition to mass mortality events, certain wildlife populations have been forced to migrate or change existing migration patterns. In the ocean and other bodies of water, the phenomenon that occurs when species migrate due to temporary changes in ocean surface temperatures caused by marine heatwaves is called thermal displacement. Some groups of non-stationary species like whales or sea turtles have moved tens of thousands of kilometers to reach a new region at their preferred temperature. This changes the food chain and equilibrium of the ecosystem they have moved to and that they have moved from.

Ultimately, global average temperature rise will have many of the same effects on wildlife populations, but recent heat waves have had large effects in a small fraction of the time. Limiting global average temperature rise will limit the extremity of heat waves and reduce potential consequences for wildlife.


CONTACTS: Mitigation pathways compatible with 1.5°C in the context of sustainable development, .ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/chapter-2/; With Temperatures Rising, Can Animals Survive the Heat Stress? e360.yale.edu/features/with-temperatures-rising-can-animals-survive-the-heat-stress.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to question@earthtalk.org .


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