Category Archives: Environment

Bananas and Earthworms -Oh Boy

Invasive species come in all varieties, warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals, all kinds of plants, even fungi. Some are notable but cause little problems – armadillos, some are notable and troublesome – feral hogs, and some you never see but are dangerous – infectious bacteria and viruses in some biting insects.

Whenever a species is introduced to a non-native environment there can be negative consequences, earthworms for example. The last ice age covered North America as far south as southern Illinois. Any native earthworms would have been wiped out. After the glaciers receded, the upper midwest evolved for thousands of years without earthworms. Much later, that locale was populated with earthworms by incidental introduction from colonial ships from Europe. Rock and dirt used as ballast and dumped onshore was the likely method of introduction.

Generally speaking, worms are good as they churn and aerate the soil. But there is a dark side. Portions of hardwood forests in Minnesota and boreal forests in Canada have been negatively impacted by invasive earthworms. Fallen leaves accumulate on the forest floor and create a rich organic layer called duff. This duff layer is the natural growing environment for native woodland wildflowers. It also provides habitat for ground-dwelling animals and helps prevent soil erosion – basically natural mulch. When earthworms are present however they eat this leaf litter. In areas heavily infested by earthworms, soil erosion and leaching of nutrients may reduce the productivity of forest and even degrade fish habitat. Many tree seedlings, ferns, and wildflowers don’t survive this altered environment.

In the “unseeable” category of invasives are numerous fungi, smuts, rusts, mildew, mold, etc. Many of these are serious agricultural pests causing untold damage to food crops. The tropics where much fruit is grown for export are particularly susceptible. A new threat has recently come to the western hemisphere. Tropical plantations are subject to problems such as fungi because of the warm, moist climate and especially because plantations are generally monoculture. When only a single species of plant is grown in large concentration, the condition is likely to favor pests.

Guatemala alone exports over 3 billion pounds of bananas to the United States annually. All together we import over 8 billion pounds of bananas a year and this crop is at risk due to a fungus from southeast Asia. Although there are over a thousand varieties of bananas, 95 percent of all commercial bananas are essentially a clone of one – the Cavendish banana. It replaced a previous clone, Gros Michael or Big Mike. It succumbed to a fungus called fusarium wilt. A similar fate seems to await the Cavendish. In some parts of southeast Asia, a new variety of this wilt is reducing production there by forty percent per year. The wilt, a soil organism, just turned up in Colombia and could appear across central America.

Invasive species generally have an advantage as natural controls are absent. Monoculture acts to increase the distribution of the invader. Devastation of the banana crop in “northern triangle” of Central America will only serve to accelerate immigration to the United States as families seek some sort of income.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Trump’s Wall is Harmful

The number to undocumented aliens in the United States has been decreasing, not increasing over the past decade. The majority of Americans don’t see a need to spend billions of dollars more on border walls. Yet, the government of the wealthiest nation on the planet is closed for business over arguments to spend money on said wall. What would the harm be to go ahead and spend money on the wall, even if it isn’t necessary nor even wanted by the majority?

Aside from claiming some sort of crisis where none exists, there is the negative impact on the environment. A recent scientific article published in Bioscience and endorsed by over 2,700 scientists lays out the case for opposing the wall.

The border between Mexico and the United states is in total 3,200 kilometers, about 2000 miles. As recently as January 15, William Barr, nominee for Attorney General said before the Senate Judiciary Committee that building a piece of wall here or there will only shift illegal traffic to those locales without a wall. If a wall is to have any effect it must be continuous from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. But even pieces of walls, fences, etc. has a negative effect on the movement of wildlife.

The borderlands region is home to over 1500 species of plants and animals, including 62 species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN.) Construction of any physical barrier entails not just the barrier itself but supporting structures such as roads, lighting, and operational bases. This disrupts the environment, destroys local vegetation, fragments the habitat. The one factor most critical in loss of biodiversity is loss of habitat.

In 2005 the Department of Homeland Security was given authority to override traditional laws protecting the environment, laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA.) Without these protections wall construction will run roughshod across what is otherwise pristine environments.

Many large mammals normally migrate across the border to and from breeding grounds and overwintering sites. These include both predator and prey species: bighorn sheep, gray wolf, pronghorn antelope, ocelot, and jaguar all have populations on both sides of the border. A wall would isolate and thereby fragment these population to the degree that they may not survive. Even more numerous impacted species are smaller mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans.

Millions of acres of borderlands in the United States and Mexico are managed explicitly for biodiversity. Wall construction would disrupt bilateral agreements with Mexico in the Sonoran desert, Sky Islands region, Big Bend, and the lower Rio Grande.

If physical barriers are absolutely needed, they need to take into account the native biosphere. The barriers need to be constructed so that they are somehow permeable to movements of wildlife. Haste in construction is the enemy of biodiversity. Where construction must occur it should be done with thorough planning to avoid negative effects. In some cases it may be necessary to forego any barrier construction.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Dark Skies

The Russellville City Council has recently taken a look at providing lighting for the four interstate interchanges. Studies show that the incidence of nighttime accidents can be reduced by better lighting. A study in Minneapolis showed that the ratio of nighttime to daytime automobile accidents at intersections is reduced by twelve percent by providing intersection lighting.

The Council approved half a million dollars for the project. To illuminate the entire interstate corridor through Russellville would cost on the order of two million dollars. Reducing accidents is a good thing but it comes at the cost of dark skies.

NASA has published numerous composite photos showing just how illuminated the planet really is. The eastern half of the United States, the west coast, western Europe, Japan, even India are clearly outlined by lighting. In one photo from over a decade ago, Russellville shows its own little speck on the nighttime.

With the exception of the extremes of the polar regions and the abyssal plains in the ocean, all life is adapted to regular day-night cycles. Disruption of the circadian rhythm enforced by day-night cycling can have effects on everything from plants to humans, especially humans.

Franz Halberg in 1959 coined the term circadian, from the Latin words “circa” (about) and “dies” (day). The rhythm is provided by the day-night environmental cue, called “zeitgebers, ” German for time givers. Time rhythms in animals are entangled with biochemistry through the production of the hormone melatonin produced by the pituitary gland.

Although sales of melatonin as a sleep aid is a multi-million dollar business, there is scant evidence of any effect. At least when properly controlled studies are considered. What there is strong evidence of is the untoward effects disruption of the circadian rhythm on humans.

Disrupted circadian rhythms due to shift work have long been known to have negative consequences. Elevated health threats include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, ulcers, and depression. Most obvious is the increase of work-related accidents from shift work schedules.

Light pollution is not a new phenomenon, records from the 1800s describe birds flying into lighthouses. A current problem is bird kills from illuminated buildings and especially cell towers.

Among insects, two effects have been observed. Nocturnal pollinators are less effective as artificial lighting confuses the pollinators and makes finding the flowers more difficult. Additionally, predators such as bats find easy pickings among the confused nocturnal insects.

The advent of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) has made the problem of light pollution worse for two reasons. Because LEDs produce light more cheaply, their use is expanding. Also, the wavelength of light produced by LEDs seems to cause greater behavioral changes in animals compared to the Sodium Vapor lights used for street lighting until recently.

The city council should think long and hard about just how much light is needed and what type of lighting is employed to minimize negative environmental effects.

Yet Another Dam?

Here in and about the river valley, we enjoy what could be described as plentiful rainfall, and a pinch of snowfall on occasions. In all, we average about 50 inches a year. Precipitation is generally spread over every month of the year with maximums occurring in the spring and early winter months. For the time being, we have sufficient water for both agriculture and drinking water, but this will change in the future. Growth alone will mean that we need to expand our drinking water supplies.

If the projections of computer models continue to correctly predict changing climate, we’re in for more trouble. Generally, global warming should mean more rainfall as warmer air can hold more moisture, but computer modeling predicts changing weather patterns with less rainfall in mid-continental regions and more on the coasts. Further confounding the issue of water availability is the prediction that what precipitation we do get will come in more intense and less frequent storm events.

Even if we get the same amount of precipitation, but it occurs less frequently, we will need more reservoir capacity to tide us over between rain events. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? In the 1980s City Corp looked to the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou as a possible site for a reservoir. Objections from the environmental community and the Ozark National Forest shifted the attention to the current site on Huckleberry Creek. The watershed of Huckleberry Creek is not large enough, but the reservoir is supplemented by pumping water out of the Illinois Bayou.

This “off-stream pumped storage” option has served the River Valley well for a couple of decades, but now City Corp is looking again to expand its supply by seeking an impoundment on the North Fork. Aside from environmental groups’ objections, and reservations on the part of the National Forest to cede land, there is the considerable expense of constructing a dam. If constructed this impoundment will flood a near pristine area currently used for hunting, fishing, camping, and other water sports.

And when this small impoundment’s capacity is exceeded, then what is the next valley to be flooded? And the next and the next? Ultimately the real long-term solution is to draw water from Lake Dardanelle. Why don’t we just cut to the chase and avoid the costs, both fighting with environmental groups and the monetary cost of construction of dams.

Water in Lake Dardanelle is good quality and can be further refined if necessary by technology. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is employed around the world to turn seawater in the potable water. RO systems are scaled from under the sink units for homeowners to multi-million gallons per day systems for municipal desalination plants.

The Arkansas Department of Health frowns on the utilization of the Arkansas River as a drinking water supply, but their objections are based on old data, and failure to recognize drastic improvements in the cost and efficiency of Reverse Osmosis technology.

Minimally treated water from lake Dardanelle could be pumped to the current Huckleberry Creek reservoir at a fraction of the cost of building more impoundments. This solution will allow us to have the drinking water we need for an expanding population under pressure from global warming. At the same time, we can save some of our wild places so our children and their children can have the experience of a relatively unexploited environment, the same as we enjoy.

Trump’s attack on the Environment

If one sentence could encapsulate the Trump administration’s approach the environment it would be “ Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.” This is a statement made by Robert Phalen, a Trump appointee to the Science Advisory Board, Environmental Protection Agency. Trump and his minions seem to be working to reverse the work of the previous decades in protecting the environment and the health of the planet.

Although much of his effort has been focused on reversing Obama era regulations, the focus is actually much broader. Fossil fuels producers and various and sundry extractive industries are favored without the burdensome regulations meant to protect our health and the environment.

In 2007 during the Bush presidency, the supreme court ruled that Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a pollutant and the EPA has the responsibility to regulate it. CO2 is the major greenhouse gas driving climate change. And what is Trump’s response? He appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the EPA.

Trump withdrew from the Paris Accords, an agreement among every country on the planet that recognizes the reality of anthropogenic global warming. This can’t be overstated. Every single country, besides us, be they capitalist, communist, socialist, monarchy, or whatever agree that actions must be taken to prevent or at least mitigate climate change caused by global warming. Everybody but us. Every scientific body including those in the United States. Friends and enemies alike, every single government, but us.

President Obama created the Clean Power Plan, meant to gradually but substantially wean us off the use of fossil fuels in electrical power generation. In October Trump proposed repealing the clean power plan in favor of increased use of coal. Ironically deregulating the use of coal will most likely have no effect to “bring back coal” because it is economics, not regulations, that has caused such a decline in its use. They will, however, have the effect of delaying the development of sustainable energy production from wind and solar.

Trump has also proposed a repeal of the methane rule. Methane, otherwise known as natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas in its own right. The methane rule was meant to tighten regulations concerning its release to the atmosphere during production and distribution. Sadly, it is cheaper to be sloppy and allow fugitive emissions that contribute to global warming.

In what must be one of the worst-timed deregulatory actions, Trump repealed a construction standard meant to reduce damage from flooding only days before the worst flooding ever in the Huston area. The standard would have added less than 1 % to the costs of construction in flood-prone areas but saved much in the long run.

One accounting suggests the Trump has repealed or rolled back 60 different rules that protect our health and the environment. These actions are out of step with most Americans. Polling consistently shows that three-quarters of the electorate favor increased environmental protection whereas less than a quarter feel the current efforts to protect the environment have gone too far.

Environmental Services

mangrove atoll

mangrove atoll


Environmental services is not only a name for numerous companies that provide, well, environmental services but also the concept that our environment provides many services to humanity. Also called ecosystems services, these range from the obvious such as recreation and food to the not so obvious but critical – regulation of the climate. Because of the burgeoning human population and the ever increasing use of fossil energy sources, these services are being taxed like never before.

The importance of climate stability is in the news daily for those willing to pay attention. The trend for decades has been that every year is warmer than the last, glaciers and polar ice are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising (three-quarters of the world’ megacities are coastal.) Less commonly addressed are some physical changes occurring in the oceans.

The oceans provide half the people in the world with their principal source of protein. Ocean fisheries provide sixteen percent of all protein consumed by humans. These food sources are under threat and the threat can turn into collapse (of fisheries for example) frighteningly fast. This has been shown already due to overfishing.

The grand banks off the coast of Newfoundland had been the world’s premier cod fishery. Europeans may have fished the site even before European settlement, but surely by the sixteenth century. Hundred’s of millions of tons of cod were taken over the centuries, a supply thought to be inexhaustible. In the late fifties, fisheries managers began to grown concerned. In 1968 the catch had dropped to just under a million tons. Just six years later it was down to under fifty thousand tons. The Grand Banks are now closed to international fishing. In a couple of decades, the blink of an eye in terms of human populations, the world went from “inexhaustible” to gone.

Conceivably other fisheries can be managed or at least one would hope. It is also hoped that burning fossil fuels can be managed, but there is little sign of that happening here in the United States. Two factors negatively impact ocean fisheries due to burning fossil fuels, heat and acidity. Both these problems have to do with the solubility of gasses in liquids. Unlike solids which are increasingly soluble in liquids, gasses are just the opposite. Atmospheric gasses such as Nitrogen and Oxygen dissolve better in colder water.

Those who fish the streams and lakes of Arkansas know that trout can only survive in cold water. Colder water contains more Oxygen which trout require. Cool water fisheries support species such as smallmouth bass whose Oxygen requirements are less than trout but greater than largemouth bass.

The long and short of it is that as the oceans warm they loose Oxygen which can stresses fish – they are slowly suffocating.

The other ocean problem is the dissolution of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which causes acidity. Although CO2 is a gas it reacts with seawater to become carbonic acid. The oceans are now about thirty percent more acidic than at the start of the industrial revolution when burning fossil fuels began in earnest. Coral reefs, the nurseries of the oceans are suffering from damage due to both heat and acidity.

Crude Movements

It seems that oil pipelines are in the news of late. Some of the new pipelines are to deal with the expanded production of crude oil here in the US. New and better technology – hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and directional drilling have resulted in the need for transportation of that oil, pipelines generally being the cheapest.

We produce about 10 million barrels of crude oil per day and import another 10 million barrels from sources all over the world. Most of this is turned into fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel and only a pittance for non-fuel petrochemicals.

But are pipelines the best way to go? Other methods to move the crude oil from where it is produced to where it is refined include barges, rail cars and tank trucks. What is the best way to do it? It depends entirely on what metric you use to measure “best.”

If you simply want to compare the least oil spilled when normalized for amount of total oil transported per distance moved (ton/mile) the ranking is barges and tankers are better than rail is better than pipeline is better than truck.

If your metric is human deaths and property destruction we get a different rank: barge is better than pipeline is better than rail is better than truck. How about environmental damage? Because aquatic environments are more sensitive the ordering becomes: Rail is better than truck is better than pipeline is better than barge.

Oh but it gets more confusing, because so much of the crude oil moves by pipeline, about 70%. Another 23% by barge and tanker, trucking 4% and rail transport a mere 3%.

If a decision were made to go to more trucking for example the change for the better (or worse) would not necessarily be linear. More trucking would mean more congestion, hence an increased risk of untoward events even after adjusting for total oil moved.

There is already some evidence of the non-linearity of change. From 1975 to 2012 trains were much shorter and had very few spills, but the recent oil boom means a higher proportion of oil moving by train. Because of longer trains and more frequent crashes, more oil was spilled in 2013 alone than the previous 37 years.

It is just not a simple “what is the best.” This conundrum is reminiscent of a senate hearing back in the 1970s. Ed Muskie was conducting a hearing as to the risks of the supersonic Concorde flying over the United States. The committee’s chief scientist said, “Senator, we’re ready to testify,” and Muskie responded, “Okay, tell me what the answer is. Is this going to be a danger?” The scientist responded “I’ve got these papers here that definitely tell us this is going to be a danger.” Muskie was ready to conclude right there, but then the NAS scientist interjected, “On the other hand, I have another set of papers over here that says these papers aren’t good enough to know the answer.” Incredulous, the senator looked up and yelled, “Will somebody find me a one-handed scientist?!”

A one-handed scientist may produce a simple answer, but it won’t necessarily be the only or best answer.

Pipelines and Electric Lines

Over the coming months two major public service transmission lines will be installed across Pope county. One is a high voltage direct current (HVDC) electric transmission line from the panhandle of Oklahoma to Memphis, Tennessee. The other is a pipeline to move oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to Memphis. One will contribute to a clean energy future, the other will contribute to global warming. Both will, to the point of law suits, incense landowners along the rights of way.

Cushing Oklahoma, because of location and historical precedent, is the major hub for oil pipelines in the United States. It also happens to have the largest oil storage tank farm in the world. The Diamond pipeline will move 200 thousand barrels of light sweet crude per day to a Valero refinery in Memphis. To get a sense of just how much oil that is, if the pipeline were diverted it could fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium in less than a day. If the oil were all converted to gasoline, it could fill the tanks of half a million cars a day.

Opposition to this 900 million dollar project comes from landowners who would rather not have a 25 to 150 foot wide strip of land which must be maintained as an open space – no forestation or permanent structures in the right of way. The pipeline is also opposed by environmental groups who would rather not have more crude oil turned in to fuel which ultimately contributes to global warming.

The panhandle region of both Texas and Oklahoma have some of the best wind resources in the country. Wind speeds average near 20 miles per hour. It is a problem however as there is no market for all the potential wind energy in the area, hence the need for transmission lines to take what energy could be generated elsewhere. Most practical is transmission to the east across Arkansas to a distribution hub in Memphis. This will allow for clean renewable energy to replace energy from coal fired power plants across the Tennessee Valley Authority power grid. It also will require a 150 or so foot right of way.

The HVDC transmission line will carry 4,000 Megawatts of direct current electricity about 700 miles start to finish. Power poles are 150 feet tall and spaced 5 to the mile. This power line is like a super highway for electrons with very limited access. The only “drop-off” point planned currently is an off ramp near Atkins. This will allow 500 Megawatts of power to flow into the local grid.

Like the oil pipeline, land owners are opposing the HVDC line. The nation’s preeminent environmental group, the Sierra Club, is supporting it.

Both project require regulatory oversight which allows the use of eminent domain to secure the rights of way. The process is different for the projects. The oil pipeline has been approved by the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) even though the Pipeline will provide no direct benefit to Arkansas. Apparently pipelines get a legal pass, not afforded to the electric transmission lines.

Because the initial HVDC line had no direct benefit to Arkansas, it was denied legal status by the APSC and therefore is seeking federal oversight. By partnering with the Department of Energy Clean line will gain federal right of eminent domain.

Species Extinctions

President Obama, when announcing his clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions said “we only get one home. We only get one planet. There’s no plan B.” The current human population is about 7.4 billion and growing by about 80 million a year. The United Nations population program projects a global population of 11 billion people by the end of this century, on our only planet.

Humans and our as yet unrestrained growth are having a profound impact on our only home, planet earth. We have transformed our atmosphere by filling it with excess carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and deforestation. The oceans are becoming more acidic from the same carbon dioxide dissolving to form carbonic acid. Agriculture has transformed over 80 per cent of the arable land and 50 per cent of the total land surface.

Our evolutionary success comes at the expense of the rest of the planet’s wildlife. We are driving other species to extinction at an unprecedented rate. Species come and go but scientists at the World Wildlife Fund estimate that human activities have accelerated the rate by over a 1000 times the natural extinction rate.

Our largest or possibly most gentle competitors for the resources of the planet are going first. Marine mammals are particularly stressed. A twenty million year old river dolphin found only in China is now officially extinct. The Banjii, called the “goddess of the Yangtze,” succumbed to human pressures in the form of habitat loss, suffocation in fish nets and collisions with shipping.

The world’s smallest porpoise is also the world’s most endangered. The Vaquita lives in the northern end of the Gulf of California, There are likely less that 60 animals, and these continue to die mainly in fish nets, many of which are illegal. Scientists are considering a hail Mary approach to its survival similar to the successful effort to save the California Condor. The rescue plan would involve collecting and captive breeding to rebuild stocks of the Vaquita. The problem is that this animal has never been held in captivity and uncertainties abound.

All 5 of the worlds species of Rhinoceros are endangered. Fewer than 60 Javan and 100 Sumatran Rhino’s survive in southeast Pacific Islands. Other Rhinos in India and Africa are more numerous but still critically endangered.

All is not lost however, as there are a couple of uplifting trends. A giant concern for the future is global warming. On that front there is some good news. Carbon free energy sources around the globe are the fastest growing source of new power. Simultaneously at least here in the US, our per capita consumption is actually decreasing. Even though there are more of us, we each are using less.

Most promising for the planet is the strong positive correlation between increased women’s education and birthrates. The more educated a woman, the fewer children she will have. Also more educated women delay childbirth and are therefore better able to provide for the children they have.

Wood as Fuel

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The capture and control of fire is right up near the top when one considers technology and human evolution. Whether simply warming the hearth, defending a home place from wild animals or cooking food, fire is a most essential ingredient. Estimates are that an ancestral species Homo erectus learned to control fire ½ a million years ago, and some scholars believe as early as 1.7 million years ago.

Wood fueled the production of the various metal ages up to and including the iron age. Wood was still the dominant fuel used in blast furnaces in early 19th century England. In fact it was the shortage of wood for the furnaces that stimulated the development of the use of coal. Forests were gradually cleared farther and farther from the furnaces until transportation costs made hauling the wood impractical.

Wood, straw, dung, etc are still major fuels in the underdeveloped world. Worldwide wood is the fourth largest source of fuel after the fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. Wood and derived products like charcoal are about one third of all fuel use in Africa and over half in Oceania.

Industrial fuel wood use in the United States is limited. Certain industries that produce significant amounts waste wood can burn it to produce steam for process heat or to drive turbines.

The amount of heat derived from burning wood varies as the density of the wood with hardwoods such as oak and hickory having the highest fuel values. At the other end of the scale are softwoods such as pine. This is only true where the wood is measured by volume such as a cord (a stack of wood 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet- 128 cubic feet.)

When measured by mass all wood has about the same fuel value which is the same as the fuel value of carbohydrates like sugar or potatoes. A toothpick and a piece of spaghetti of the same weight will produce the same amount of heat when burned.

In rural areas where available, wood is used for space heat. It may be hard to think about it now in August, but come January or so, there will be nothing like a hot wood stove to back up to on a cold morning. An air tight wood stove can be a useful source of heat, but an open fireplace, regardless of how attractive, will actually remove heat from a room.

Wood can be a renewable energy source but just how “green” is it? Not all that much. There is much waste when wood is harvested for fuel, it’s call the “roots and shoots” issue. The roots below ground and the unused branches and leaves mean that a lot of biomass is wasted.

The biggest drawback about use of wood as fuel is the burning. Any time something burns varying amounts of noxious products are produced. Fine particulates damage respiratory systems and cause asthma, especially in children. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons produced by combustion are carcinogenic. Carbon Monoxide production can be deadly. It interferes with oxygen absorption in the blood and result in acute respiratory failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It is estimated that over 4 million premature deaths a year can be blamed on cooking and heating with biomass, essentially all in the underdeveloped parts of the world.