Category Archives: Environment

Solar is Looking Bright

This month I had the pleasure of becoming the proud owner of a solar system. Not an infinite universe, the renewable energy kind. I’ve wanted an array of panels since high school, the way some kids dream about a fast, shiny car or a spring break trip to Fort Lauderdale.

My adorable house, a 1928 craftsman, has struggled with overheating in the warm weather since before we bought it in 1998. So I knew its perfectly-sloped, south-facing roof would be ideal for erasing my electric bill.

IMG_3731I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit smug now that the panels are up, the way some might feel with that shiny new car in their driveway. But unlike a fancy new car, I’m hoping everyone will get to have solar someday. I’m really excited about the incentives and developments in solar and wind that help lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and the wars that go with them.

My husband has also expanded his nerd repertoire. At least twice a day he lets me know how many kilowatt-hours we’ve generated, while still forgetting to turn off the dining room light when he heads to bed. Baby steps.

While I was working on getting my own solar panels, I stumbled across the subject of my latest article on A Bellingham-based land trust, Kulshan Community Land Trust, with the help of a mysterious anonymous donor, is putting solar on many of its homes, while creating jobs and stimulating the local economy for two solar design companies, Ecotech Solar and Western Solar, as well as a panel manufacturing company, Itek Energy.

If you’ve thought about jumping on the bandwagon, this is the time. One big federal incentive is set to expire in 2016. Maybe we can convince President Obama to use an executive order to extend it to 2020? Can’t hurt to send him an e-mail, right?

Its Not Leprechaun Beer

I recently wrote an article about Bellingham Green Drinks??????????????????????????????? for Its not about little Irish men and their gold coins, but instead about a monthly gathering whose only goal is to provide a platform for people to talk about the environment. Check out the article and find a Green Drinks near you!

The Crossing Guide

I’m delighted to be writing freelance for a recently launched tourism-based publication, The Crossing Guide. I was pleased to cover for this quarter’s issue my experience with Mountain School at North Cascades Institute and all their fantastic environmental education and recreation programs, as well as the Lynden Pioneer Museum. Earlier this year I wrote about the 12th Annual Northwest birding festival in Blaine, WA, Wings Over Water. This publication is free and distributed throughout lower mainland British Columbia, Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and Snohomish Counties. Check it out when you get the chance.cropped-TCG_banner_redbckgrnd_tagline_free


ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was broadly introduced to the world in 1939 when the Iron Horse of Baseball Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with this progressive neurodegenerative disease. Motor neurons that reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body are affected, impairing the ability to use the hands and feet, speak, swallow, and breathe. The ALS Association website has more information.

I’ve been learning about this disease because two of my friends have been diagnosed with it recently. It feels extra shocking to me because the incidence in the general population is supposedly only 2 in 100,000, yet my town is smaller than that and there are many more in my area living with the disease.

I read the highly recommended memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Alborn, the true story of Morrie Schwartz and the weekly conversations they had together while Morrie managed his ALS diagnosis. Tuesdays is excellent because Alborn was able to capture Morrie’s hard-earned wisdom about life, death, and humanity and share it with the world.

As Alborn learned from his weekly chats, spending time with people who know they are dying brings great gifts. I am reminded to live each day more fully, to appreciate the people in my life, to be thankful for my health and circumstances, to cherish each moment in its own right, and to let go of the little things that don’t really matter. I also regret not spending more time with these friends before their diagnosis. I always thought there would be more time. All of these get thrown by the wayside while I’m rushing to and from the kid’s school and the grocery store, feeling exhausted and behind in every task.

Spending time with my friends who have ALS releases my petty disappointments and frustration with the day-to-day. The concerns melt away like sand through my fingers after only a few minutes with my friends. For their time and candor, and the clarity it brings me, I truly thank them.

What I’ve learned about ALS so far:

  • The disease is poorly understood and there is still no known cure.
  • ALS is not wholly inherited genetically. It may be affected by environmental factors and can strike anyone.
  • Most people diagnosed with ALS live from 2-10 years after diagnosis, with some exceptions.
  • A couple of drugs are in clinical trials that could slow the progression of the disease.
  • Donations can be made to support the search for a cure at The ALS Association.

If you know someone with ALS, spend time with them. Listen and learn. Cherish every person in your life and every moment. Then make a donation so that someday, ALS will just be an entry in the history books.

Real Costs of Invasive Species in the Great Lakes and Beyond

In February I blogged here about the U.S. Supreme Court’s failure to protect the Great Lakes from invasion by the Asian carp, which have the potential to further decimate native species and cost millions in economic losses and recovery efforts.

I’ve been drawn to the study of invasive species for many reasons. Study and management are multidisciplinary, requiring collaboration between scientists, policy makers and government, industry, farmers and fisherman, recreation, and the public. No solution is black and white and understanding must occur at both the global and microscopic level to develop complex solutions that often completely satisfy no one.

In a recent study, researchers from two American universities and one in the Netherlands have collaborated to calculate the approximate annual financial losses due not to the Asian carp that is poised to invade, but instead to other invasive species contained in the ballast water of ocean-going vessels that travel in Great Lakes water bodies. Researchers estimate that damages are $138 to $800 million annually, an underestimate that does not include Canadian costs.

Ballast water is simply fresh or sea water taken in and out of the holds and tanks of ships to manage stability and maneuverability during transport and the loading and unloading of cargo. Although ballast water discharge regulations were developed by an international convention in 2004, enforcement by the U.S. Coast Guard is imperfect. Appropriate ballast water discharge should occur in high seas (over 2000 meters in depth) or through chemical or mechanical treatment when seas are low and all discharges are to be logged.

Despite recent regulation, several invasive species have been transported throughout the world via ballast water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 30% of invasive species in the Great Lakes were introduced via ballast water discharges. At least 25 non-native fish species have been introduced to the Great Lakes via ballast water since the 1800’s. First discovered in 1988, and now widespread in the U.S. and Canada, the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) was introduced via ballast water from the Caspian and Black Seas of Asia. A single sea lamprey, originally native to the Atlantic Ocean, also kills about 40 lbs. of Great Lakes fish in its life time, preferring lake trout, salmon, rainbow trout (steelhead), whitefish, chubs, burbot, walleye, catfish, and sturgeon.

A more recent trend, scientists and economists believe that converting environmental impacts to dollar values will help policy makers in cost/benefit analysis of future policy changes, management and prevention, and mitigation efforts. Similar approaches are being used to determine the most cost-effective approaches to control and mitigate global climate change. The numbers in the above study were used, for example, to evaluate the potential benefit of switching away from shipping toward other modes of transportation, noting that the switch could pencil out in our financial favor in less than 30 to 50 years. The real question is, can we wait that long?


Crayfish photo courtesy of Examining Global Environmental Problems 2011, Lamprey on Lake Trout photo from Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

Outside the Box with Bicycles

Several years ago I started a non-profit car sharing organization in Bellingham. Although we couldn’t make it stick and it closed about two years ago, our motivations were similar to those of Bellinghamster Tim Flores. This week he moved the entire contents of his modest home across town, with only the help of a few friends and their bicycles.

I admire people who challenge themselves and those that act in line with their conscience rather than take the autopilot route.

Have you ever taken a stand on an issue in a way that’s worthy of a newspaper article? I’d love to hear your stories here.

Thanks to Cathy Belben for posting the article on Facebook and to Olivet for this sketch.

BPA Links to Infertility

When the fertility doctor broke the news to us that my husband was struggling with his fertility, our first question was, “What’s causing it?” We wanted to know how we ended up there, and whether something could be done to solve the issue. The doctor explained that rarely do families determine the actual cause of infertility issues. A few expensive tests (often not covered by health insurance) are available to check the function of a woman’s reproductive system, but for most people who suffer through it, no explanation is found and doctors are left to simply treat the symptoms with fertility drugs or, as in our case, suggest the use of egg and/or sperm donors and adoption.

My first instinct was to suspect chemical exposure through his job as an auto technician. He’s touched and breathed an array of toxic chemicals over more than 25 years to maintain other people’s cars. My initial assumption was part of a culturally pervasive idea that increases in infertility could be due in part to subtle exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment.

One industrial chemical (and subsequent environmental pollutant), Bisphenol-A (BPA), found in hard plastics and known as an estrogen-disruptor and for its negative effects on the heart and central nervous system, has also recently been linked to changes in immune response within the uterus. Because of its chemical similarity to the hormone estradiol in the body, BPA binds to proteins meant to interact with estradiol.

Many Washingtonians are familiar with BPA because it was part of a phased ban in Washington State in 2010. By July 1, 2012, no one can make or sell reusable sports bottles, sippy cups, or baby bottles containing BPA in the state. Last year, Oregon considered a similar ban that would also add baby formula containers to the list along with warning labels to consumers.

New research in the March Journal of Reproductive Toxicology shows that mice exposed to BPA in their food can experience bacterial infections in the uterus (pyometra), a condition observed in cats and dogs.

Whether a causal link exists between BPA and human uterine infertility is too soon to tell. The study focused on pathological changes and not fertility rates and uterine changes due to BPA exposure haven’t been scientifically demonstrated in humans. However, this research will continue the scientific quest to understand what role subtle environmental exposures have on human fertility rates. My guess is that once the data are finally in, the list of toxic chemicals effecting fertility will be much longer than we ever suspected.

Our Brethren: The Chimpanzee

When I decided to be Snooki for Halloween two years ago, I started watching episodes of The Jersey Shore. Originally, I wanted to perfect the costume and the accent, perhaps emulate some of her mannerisms. I was very happy with how my costume turned out (below). But once Halloween was over, I missed watching the show and I couldn’t figure out why exactly, or for that matter, why reality TV has been so successful over recent years compared to scripted shows.

I think I’ve figured out at least one reason. In sensational reality TV, whether the characters are eating unusual insects, competing to be the last person on an island, discovering paternity on Jerry Springer, or fighting in a club on the Jersey Shore, we see our ancient selves in them, our wildest nature, a more instinctual lifestyle that many of us have abandoned for more refined and civil decorum. We see the lifestyle of our ancient brethren, with whom we share 96% of our DNA, the chimpanzee.

But what makes these shows so appealing to us is that these people are living the wilder life, a life full of emotions and feelings that we still possess and feel with animal intensity, but most of us win the struggle to suppress them.

As exhibit A, I present a short clip from a BBC Wildlife documentary on chimp behavior, showing a male display of authority and dominance.

Exhibit B is a clip from the reality TV series The Jersey Shore, filming in Italy. Mike, The Situation, is fed up with Ronnie’s behavior.

I was reminded of the similarities between us and the chimpanzees when I saw this article today at Science Daily News, about how chimpanzees have policemen within their groups to help maintain social order. My first thought was, of course they do. They probably also have twenty other cultural role similarities that haven’t even occurred to us before.

As you might have heard, Snooki is now engaged and with child. She said she won’t spend the summer at the Jersey Shore because, “those days are over.” Being pregnant and engaged is changing her behavior. I haven’t looked yet, but I bet I can find a chimpanzee nature show or article that asserts that female chimpanzees participate in fewer risky behaviors when pregnant. If you find one, please do let me know.

What do you think of reality TV? Do you see any connections to your own primal nature? Which wild shows are your favorite vices? I’d love to hear your comments.

“On Bicycles” by Amy Walker

Check out Bellingham Village Books reading of Amy Walker’s On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life. I can’t attend so please let me know if you do, I’d love a report.

Bicycling has changed my life. When I was a kid, my bike rides were my solace, taking me “far” from home, connecting me with friends over the summer, building my confidence as a solo explorer of my own township. In college my bicycle was transportation and saved me hundreds of dollars per year on parking passes. In my 30’s, my bicycle was gave me the motivation to start a non-profit car share, to enable others to give up a car and take the bus and bike instead. When my twins were born, riding my bicycle with them in the trailer or on tag-alongs made me feel like a warrior, capable and strong. Now, my bicycle is rehab from knee surgery and part of the exercise I can just squeeze into my busy writer-mom life. I’m still dreaming of overnight bike camping trips with my family, and perhaps someday even more ambitious trips like those taken by my gal pal Laural Ringler and her family, from Bellingham to Mexico and in European cities, as she shares  on her Family Adventuring blog and in regular features in Adventures NW.

Bicycles have influenced my life more than any car ever could and I’ve loved each of them like a friend. If bicycles haven’t yet changed your life for the better, consider giving them a test ride. They’re so much more than transportation and exercise.