Tag Archives: environment

What the Future of Death Looks Like

At UCLA’s Donated Body Program, Dean Fisher uses a device to dissolve the dead bodies of donors. This alkaline hydrolysis machine, called the “Resomator,” turns bodies into liquid and pure white bone, which is then pounded and scattered at sea. Compared to cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is better for the environment, yet the process is currently only legal in the U.K. and in 14 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. Is this the machine that could disrupt the death industry?

At Wired UK, Hayley Campbell explores this process of water cremation, which a growing number of advocates is calling a cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive alternative to burial and traditional cremation.

The machine is mid-cycle. Fisher, grey-haired and tall in light green scrubs, explains what’s happening inside the high-pressure chamber: potassium hydroxide is being mixed with water heated to 150°C. A biochemical reaction is taking place and the flesh is melting off the bones. Over the course of up to four hours, the strong alkaline base causes everything but the skeleton to break down to the original components that built it: sugar, salt, peptides and amino acids; DNA unzips into its nucleobases, cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine. The body becomes fertiliser and soap, a sterile watery liquid that looks like weak tea. The liquid shoots through a pipe into a holding tank in the opposite corner of the room where it will cool down, be brought down to an acceptable pH for the water treatment plant, and be released down the drain.

Fisher says I can step outside if it all gets too much, but it’s not actually that terrible. The human body, liquefied, smells like steamed clams.

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Corals and Crabs Get Moonstruck, Too

Image by Piith Hant, via WikiMedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The moon has been on my mind lately. Maybe it’s the upcoming solar eclipse (of which I’ll only get to see 88% percent, alas), or the number of times “lunatic” has been used in political commentary over the past few months. Of course, if you’re a coral reef off the coast of Australia, the moon has always been a crucial element in your existence (specifically: your sex life), and humans’ heliocentric obsessions are just plain silly. As Ferris Jabr lovingly shows at Hakai Magazine, moonlight has only recently started to receive the attention it deserves from marine biologists and other environmental scientists — and their lateness is part of a broader, sun-versus-moon cultural binary that has perpetuated itself through the centuries.

In antiquity, the influence of the moon on earthbound life was intuited—and celebrated. Our ancestors revered the moon as the equal of the sun, a dynamic signature of time, and a potent source of fertility.

“Time was first reckoned by lunations, and every important ceremony took place at a certain phase of the moon,” wrote English classicist Robert Graves in The Greek Myths. A 25,000-year-old limestone carving discovered in a rock shelter in France depicts a pregnant woman holding what appears to be a bison horn with the swoop of a crescent moon and 13 small notches—a possible paean to reproductive and lunar cycles. And some early Meso-American cultures seemed to believe that the moon deity controlled sexuality, growth, rainfall, and the ripening of crops.

In more recent times, the importance of the moon to Earth’s creatures has been eclipsed by the great solar engine of life. The sun is searingly bright, palpably hot, bold, and unmissable; our steadfast companion for many of our waking hours. The moon is spectral and elusive; we typically catch it in glimpses, in partial profile, a smudge of white in the dark or a glinting parenthesis. Sunlight bakes the soil, bends the heads of flowers, pulls water from the seas. Moonlight seems to simply descend, deigning to visit us for the evening. We still perceive the sun as the great provider—the furnace of photosynthesis—but the moon has become more like mood lighting for the mystical and occult; more a symbol of the spirit world than of our own. “There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery,” wrote Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim. The sun’s immense power over Earth and its creatures is scientific fact; to endow the moon with equal power is to embrace fairy tales and ghost stories.

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A Whale Hunt on Facebook

Whale bones and boat frames, Barrow, Alaska
Whale bones and boat frames, Barrow, Alaska via Wikimedia

What happens when a Greenpeace activist finds a Native Alaskan whale hunter on Facebook? Trolling, that’s what.

At High Country News, Julia O’Malley visits Gambell, Alaska, a community that relies on subsistence hunting for survival. And she meets a skilled hunter, Chris Apassingok, who has been targeted on social media since news of his successful whale hunt went public online.

It used to be that rural Alaska communicated mainly by VHF and by listening to messages passed over daily FM radio broadcasts, but now Facebook has become a central platform for communication, plugging many remote communities into the world of comment flame wars, cat memes and reality television celebrity pages.

That is how Paul Watson, an activist and founder of Sea Shepherd, an environmental organization based in Washington, encountered Chris’ story. Watson, an early member of Greenpeace, is famous for taking a hard line against whaling. On the reality television show, Whale Wars on Animal Planet, he confronted Japanese whalers at sea. His social media connections span the globe.

Watson posted the story about Chris on his personal Facebook page, accompanied by a long rant. Chris’ mother may have been the first in the family to see it, she said.

“WTF, You 16-Year Old Murdering Little Bastard!,” Watson’s post read. “… some 16-year old kid is a frigging ‘hero’ for snuffing out the life of this unique self aware, intelligent, social, sentient being, but hey, it’s okay because murdering whales is a part of his culture, part of his tradition. … I don’t give a damn for the bullshit politically correct attitude that certain groups of people have a ‘right’ to murder a whale.”

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A Village Falls into the Sea

Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea
Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea via NASA

In the middle of the map, climate change can feel like an abstraction. Is a warmer, wetter summer an anomaly in the weather pattern, or part of a greater change? Is this an early heat wave just a seasonal spike?

At the edges of the map though, the impact is very real. Solid ground is literally disappearing. At Sierra, Rachel Rivera visits Shishmaref, an island village north of Nome, Alaska, and witnesses the effect that global warming — and the resulting rising sea level — has had on this remote Native Alaskan settlement.

Long accustomed to living under the most extreme weather conditions, Inupiaq communities on Alaska’s Arctic coast are facing their toughest challenge yet. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Average air temperatures are more than 6°F warmer than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and the lack of reflective snow is causing both land and sea to absorb more solar heat. The sea ice, critical to the creatures that sustain human life here, is melting. Sea ice also serves as a natural buffer, shielding coastal communities from the direct impact of storms. Recently, Shishmaref has been subject to stronger storm surges and increased flooding. A storm in 2013 eroded 50 feet of the beach overnight—including part of the road next to the airstrip, the only way out if the village should have to evacuate.

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Found in the Attic: A Decade of Climate Data on Somalia

Young and old Somali rebels in 1991, after a month of civil war. (AP Photo)

Climate change isn’t just about rising sea levels threatening polar bears, ecological disasters can have severe economic and political impacts: Witness the Somalian civil war. The man whose research could help, Englishman Murray Watson, was abducted in southern Somalia in 2008, and hasn’t been heard from since. Laura Heaton has the story in Foreign Policy.

A few days after the abduction, Bennett-Jones started getting calls from a Somali man who spoke excellent English and claimed to be a negotiator for the kidnappers, whom the journalist by then believed to be members of al-Shabab. The man’s demands ranged from $2 million to $4 million for the ecologist’s safe return. Watson’s family couldn’t pay, his country wouldn’t, and the trail has been quiet ever since. No group has claimed his killing. No remains have ever been found.

For years after the kidnapping, the small cadre of environmentalists still working in Somalia had assumed that decades’ worth of scientific knowledge compiled by Watson had also been lost. Without vital land surveys that vanished during the civil war, it would be hard to determine precisely how or at what rate the country’s climate was changing — and therefore difficult to design measures that could limit the damage. But a recent discovery, made more than 4,000 miles away in Britain, has suddenly resurrected the possibility of continuing Watson’s environmental work. It has also revealed the extent to which his legacy may be intertwined with the fate of Somalia itself.

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America’s Great Lake, or the Greatest Lake?

Winter Sea Caves, Lake Superior by Sweet Alize via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake. In the winter, it’s so cold you’ll only have a minute to recover from the shock, should you take a tumble into its freezing waters. At Outside, Stephanie Pearson explores the lake’s extreme history, expanse, diversity, and dangers. It’s the first time Pearson, a world traveler, has taken the time to get to know the natural wonder that is literally in her backyard.

Pukaskwa is the only wilderness-designated park in Ontario, an impressive distinction in a province that has about 1,000 polar bears, more than 250,000 lakes, and one person per square mile in its entire northwest region. With a single road in, surrounded by backcountry so dense that few people other than its original Anishinabek inhabitants have seen it, the park is a favorite of expert kayakers who paddle Pukaskwa’s raw coastline and backpackers who know they need at least ten days to hike the out-and-back 37-mile coastal trail.

That kind of toughness sums up the steely character of most folks who have lived along Lake Superior over the centuries—from the Ojibwe to the French voyageurs to Nordic immigrant fishermen.

Everyone except, perhaps, me. I can count on two hands the number of times I ventured off Lake Superior’s shoreline growing up in Duluth. In the winter, when the air temperature dropped below zero, steam would rise from the lake, shrouding the city in magical puffs of white. But on the dreariest days, the lake would reflect the lightless, bruised sky, so dark and heavy that I felt like it was crushing my spirit. My family didn’t have a boat big enough to safely navigate such a dangerous body of water. Its inaccessibility made Superior that much more mysterious—like a giant mood ring reflecting the temper of the universe. Even on the most benign summer days, its power was omni­present. Once, while landing my sister’s kayak on a rocky beach in five-foot waves, I capsized and hit my head. It made me wonder if the lake was a living entity, actively trying to kill me.

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Sometimes You’re the Bug. Far Fewer Times, of Late.

Wasp on a Windshield
Wasp on a Windshield by Ruth Borragina via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

At my house, we’d noticed the lack of bees this spring, but we’d chalked it up to the late arrival of warm weather and a rainier-than-usual season. Turns out our anecdotal data gathering isn’t entirely off — there are fewer bugs. Of all kinds.

In Science, Gretchen Vogel asks why we’re spending less time cleaning the windshield, and what that means further up the food chain.

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”

Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”

Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

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Where Were You the First Time You Realized the Government Wasn’t Always On the Ball?

Crews of convicts clean up oil-soaked straw on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif. (AP Photo/Wally Fong, FILE)

Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.

Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.

Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?

Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.

Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.

Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.

It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.

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The Outdoorsy Type’s Dilemma

Image by Sam Beebe (CC BY 2.0)

At The Guardian, Marisa Meltzer looks at the self-congratulatory corporate philosophies of outerwear giants Patagonia and The North Face. Beyond the often-amusing details (like the time employees at Patagonia’s California headquarters tried to save a butterfly chrysalis they’d spotted on the sidewalk), she unpacks the complex dynamic that allows these companies to tout their ethical sourcing and care for the environment while selling luxury goods to affluent weekend warriors.

Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intention of using it professionally isn’t exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah don’t use them to run long distances.

But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration — ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like they’re not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff — and fills the world with more and more stuff.

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From Food Scraps to Profit: The Compost King of New York City

At first, I didn’t know what to make of Charles Vigliotti. You seldom hear the words “wealthy” and “composter” strung together. But as he explained his roundabout path to the energy sector, I began to sense Vigliotti’s commitment to solving some serious environmental problems, even as he lined his silky pockets.

After city landfills began closing in the 1980s, Vigliotti found he was spending too much money directing waste out of state. He began to move away from the trash business and in 1991 established with his brother Arnold a compost company in Westbury, N.Y., that transforms Himalayas of landscape debris — grass clippings, leaves, wood chips — into millions of bags of lawn and garden products. Business was good, but Vigliotti remained restless. In 1999, he opened a compost site in Yaphank, where in 2008 he began dabbling in food waste, mixing scraps from a Whole Foods Market and a small-batch won-ton manufacturer into his formula for potting soils. At this point, Vigliotti wasn’t thinking of food waste as a renewable energy source or a way to reduce the city’s far-flung garbage footprint or greenhouse-gas emissions. It was simply a way to take in more volume and thus make more money.

At the New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Royte reports on “compost king” Charles Vigliotti, chief executive of American Organic Energy, who has a vision for the future: transforming the food waste of New York City into clean energy — and a profit.

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