August 31, 2004
Watch NEW's cool animated map that shows how air pollution blows from the cities to the mountain here.
Read NEW's backgrounder on the issue here.
And read the Seattle PI’s coverage here.
August 30, 2004
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Reports
Last week brought a Bush administration report on climate change indicating a possible shift in the president's position on the role of human activity in global warming (this is according to the media; the administration denied such a shift). I wonder if Bush was influenced by the nation's best picture book, National Geographic, which devoted this month's cover story to global warming. The issue's stunning photos illustrate climate change's many warning signs, from melting glaciers (here's the Columbia Glacier in Alaska, which shrank by eight miles from 1977 to 1999) to species shifts (such as gender imbalances in sea turtle populations), to droughts. One note, though: the Web site doesn't come close to capturing the visual power of the print version.
The issue also illustrates that warming is hitting closer to home. Northwesterners will be dismayed that Glacier National Park's glaciers have decreased in number from 150 to 30 since 1910; and the park's famed Sperry Glacier has shrunk from more than 800 acres to 300 acres since 1901. As a transplanted New Englander, I was disturbed that Vermont's maple industry may also suffer. With luck the magazine, which reaches some 6 million people every month will help a wider audience understand that the "slow news" (pdf article) of climate change is becoming more dramatic all the time.
The latest from the Census Bureau: incomes are stagnant, poverty is up, and a red-hot real estate market is leaving Washington's low-income renters feeling the squeeze.
In 2000, about 34 percent of Washington renters spent 35 percent or more of their income on rent. Last year, about 40 percent of renters did so. Many experts say that 35 percent of income is about the upper limit of what families should spend on housing.
The housing report comes on the heels another Census survey that showed that median incomes in the U.S. stagnated while the number of people in poverty or without health insurance increased.
Testing our Medal
The Olympics are over, and the U.S. sports pages were full of the news that the U.S. athletes won more medals than any other nation. Quite an accomplishment, huh?
Well, not really. The U.S. is an awfully big country -- the third biggest in the world, with about 293 million residents at last count. So with 103 medals, that makes about 1 medal for every 2.8 million people. Adjusting for population, Canada did slightly better than the U.S.: 1 medal for every 2.7 million people.
Both nations were in the middle of the pack. Of the nations that participated in the Olympics, 75 won medals. Person for person, the U.S. haul ranked 40th, Canada's 38th.
The real winner of the Olympic games was...wait for it...the Bahamas. The island nation pulled in just 2 medals--a gold and a bronze--but has a population of less than 300,000. That gives the country a medal for every 150,000 residents, making the Bahamas about 19 times as athletic, person for person, as the U.S. and Canada.
Australia won the silver in the medals-per-capita Olympics, and Cuba just edged out Estonia for the bronze. China, which pulled in the third largest medal haul, was close to the bottom in medals per capita; though India, with just one silver medal for its 1.1 billion residents, was the real cellar-dweller.
None of this should take anything away from U.S. or Canadian athletes. I just thought it was an interesting example of a widely reported statistic in the mainstream media that, on closer examination, is almost meaningless. So the next time you read about the Dow Jones or the Consumer Confidence Index in the business pages, just think "Olympic medal count."
August 27, 2004
A Whale of a Problem
Perhaps this is a bad news/good news story: the Northwest's orcas are contaminated with high levels of a toxic flame retardant chemical that is known to cause mental impairments and thyroid problems in laboratory animals, and that is similar to compounds that are known to weaken mammalian immune systems.
But at least the whales won't catch on fire.
Introducing . . . Denim Pine
Cascadia’s inland pine forests have been, predictably, catching fire a lot this summer. (From the safety of a boat, I came within a couple hundred yards of a giant blaze on my vacation earlier this month.) And climate change has likely fanned the flames.
But climate change’s biggest toll on inland forests, so far, has been to turn them blue – the color, not the mood or the political leaning.
Yes, trees in the inland Northwest, especially in British Columbia, are increasingly stained in azure shades. The explanation is such a perfect example of ecological interactions that, like foxes and rabbits, it might start appearing in biology textbooks.
Inland pine forests have long been kept honest by a few types of bark beetles, the mountain pine beetle (pictured) among them, which attack trees that are stressed by drought or disease. Hitchhiking on the voracious wood eaters’ backs is often a fungus. The beetles bore through pine bark to eat and lay their eggs; the fungus spreads inside the bark. Where the fungus goes, it dyes the wood in shades from cerulean to indigo. Together, fungus and beetles weed out stressed stands of trees. This gives the forests a healthy mix of ages, which makes them more resistant to catastrophic fires and disease.
These self-balancing feedback loops, of course, evolved within the bounds of the present (or recent past) climate. As Cascadia’s climate changes, the ecosystem is coming unglued. Beetle numbers are limited by, among other things, the coldest days in winter. And, though average temperatures in our region have increased only a little as yet, the extreme colds have become much less extreme. In British Columbia, for example, where mountain pine beetles are most prevalent, average year-round temperatures are up about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century. Minimum winter temperatures, meanwhile, are up more than 4 degrees (pdf, see page 6).
In places, reports the High Country News (subscription required) in an excellent feature, the winter die-off rate among beetles has dropped from about 80 percent to about 10 percent.
Adding fuel to the fire, interior Cascadia has suffered one summer drought after another in the past decade, also perhaps because of climate change. And drought has weakened the pine forests’ resistance to beetle attack. Augmenting the effects of climate, decades of forest fire suppression and clearcut logging have homogenized vast areas of forest to even-age stands of middle-aged lodgepole pine—setting the table for a bioregion-wide beetle fest.
Bark beetle numbers in the inland Northwest are up by the hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions. Talk about a population boom!
As of late last year, mountain pine beetles had spread across 25 million acres of British Columbia’s timberlands, plus millions of additional acres of parks and other protected forests. (Their 2003 extent is here. An animation showing Mountain pine beetle outbreaks in British Columbia in recent decades is here.) And beetle infestations seem to be accelerating. BC beetles overran twice as large an area in 2003 as in 2002.
In the Northwest states, beetles are also proliferating. Trees by the millions have dried out and died in Idaho’s national forests. Eastern Washington has lost a third of a million acres of lodgepole pine.
Unfortunately, there’s some even worse news: the beetles, emboldened by their success among lodgepole pines, are moving into new, unprepared hosts. In Idaho and Washington, the infestation has spread up to the whitebark pines, a high altitude species that plays a critical role in its ecosystem. In 2003, some 13,000 acres of whitebark pine died in eastern Washington, up from 1,700 acres the previous year.
Whitebark pine nuts are a seasonal food for grizzly bears. When the number of nuts is low, bears move to lower elevations, where people usually live. Research conducted in Yellowstone National Park found that bad Whitebark nut years are big years for human-bear interactions. And human-bear interactions lead to one thing: dead bears. Biologist David Mattson told the Billings (Montana) Gazette "When you have a good year with whitebark pine, the bears stay up high and stay alive. When you have a poor year, the bears come (to lower elevations) and they die faster." Beetles, in short, endanger grizzly bears.
Oh, and about the blue wood: With millions of acres of tinted trees dying in the hinterlands, the province of British Columbia has launched a marketing campaign to help sell the lumber. Their bold, lemons-to-lemonade concept? Denim Pine.
Here’s the pitch:
Denim Pine is a unique exotic wood created by Mother Nature. It can currently be found deep within the forests of British Columbia, Canada.
Only Denim Pine products guarantee they are environmentally friendly. You will also know you are buying "Green". These trees died naturally in the forest.
Can “acid-washed boards” be far behind?
(This post researched and coauthored by Matt Schoellhammer.)
August 26, 2004
The (Aging) Population Bomb?
The best thing in the new edition of World Watch magazine is the article by Martha Farnsworth Riche called “Low Fertility and Sustainability.” (pdf) As birthrates slow in the Northwest and across the industrial world, many observers are worrying about aging populations. As the baby boom ages, there will be more elders per worker than ever before. That will put strains on public retirement and health care financing.
Riche, a former director of the Census Bureau, sheds considerable light on this legitimate, but much overblown, challenge. (We touched on the issue in the Northwest here.)
One key idea she discusses is unlocking retirement ages. The retire-at-65 pattern was established when lifespans were 67 to 69 years. As lifespans stretch toward 80 years and beyond, and as seniors’ health during those years keeps improving, there’s little reason to retire so soon. There is a political problem posed by aging populations (raising the retirement age), but it's not an economic or cultural or social or mathematical problem.
One final point, not from Riche: the number of dependents (including children and seniors) per worker was about as high during the height of the baby boom as it will be during the boomers’ retirement, in both the United States and Canada. All societies managed it then, during the childhood of the baby boom generation, when incomes were far lower. There’s no reason we can’t manage it again.
I Went Back to Ohio, But My Pretty Countryside...
A striking lede:
New research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finds that all the impervious surfaces—buildings, roads, parking lots, and roofs—in the continental United States cover an area nearly the size of Ohio.I have a love-hate relationship with this sort of fact: it's shocking, but I don't quite know what to make of it. Is Ohio a lot of impervious surface, or just a little given the size of the country?
But what really interests me about the article is the pointed questions it raises about "smart growth" -- particularly, whether increasing the density of new development is really better for water quality.
Some context is in order: impervious surface is generally bad for stream, rivers, and other water bodies. Concrete and asphalt increase runoff volumes and decrease natural filtration -- meaning that the water that reaches streams is dirtier and comes in bigger bursts than it ordinarily would. And it doesn't take a lot of pavement to hurt a stream: within a watershed, if one acre in ten is paved, stream quality declines, and once one in four is paved, streams often can't even maintain basic channel stability or fish habitat.
In general, urban areas have substantially less pavement per resident than do sparsely populated suburbs: the pavement is concentrated, but overall there's less of it. "New urbanist" developments try to replicate those features, by concentrating amenities, workplaces, and homes in pedestrian-friendly developments. In theory, then, concentrated growth can have lower overall impacts on the health of water bodies than sprawling suburbs.
But that's the theory. In practice the specifics really matter: a new urbanist development that's in the wrong place can have more of an impact than a sparser development that's done just right. This should be obvious enough, and I'm sure that smart growth advocates and practitioners would agree.
But given that this issue is being raised, what we can probably expect to see at some point is an example of a "smart growth" development that really hurts water quality. And then some enterprising reporter or think tank will blow it up into a story of how smart growth has failed.
The question about the link between smart growth and water quality is definitely worth asking -- but it's also worth answering right.
I Don't Want To Work
Not surprising, but worth a mention: incomes grew over the 1990s in Washington, but the gains were lopsided. Adjusting for inflation, annual wages at the 25th percentile grew by $800 over the decade. At the 90th percentile, wages grew by $8,864 -- ten times as much.
Don't get me wrong -- the gains in the 25th percentile were probably good news. (I say "probably" rather than "definitely" because inflation adjustments are a tricky business: inflation may progress at a different pace for the poor and the well-off, since they spend different shares of their incomes on housing, food, and services -- all of which have slightly different paces of inflation.) But don't celebrate too much: the growing gaps between rich and poor come with hidden costs. Increased income inequality tends to correlate with higher rates of violence and property crimes, lower voter participation, less support for public investments, and slower increases in lifespan. Some of these trends improved over the 1990s, but some evidence suggests that they could have improved even more if economic gains had been more broadly shared.
Although the gaps between rich and poor widened over the decade, the gaps between men and women narrowed, at least somewhat. By most measures, gains in women's incomes outpaced those of men. For women working full time, median incomes increased by $4,700 over the decade; for men the gain at the median was $2,000. (Still, the median wage for women who worked full time in 1999 was $29,000 -- about 28% lower than the $40,000 earned by the median man.)
So the lessons for me: as one form of inequality wanes, another form waxes. And in setting economic priorities for the region, we should pay close attention to these changes--the priorities of the last decade may not be the priorities of the coming one.
On a side note: only about half of all adults aged 18-64 in Washington State have full-time jobs; the rest work part time, or not at all. And that doesn't include all of the kids and retirees -- if you include them, then it's more like a third of us who have full time jobs. Which makes me all the more astounded at our region's economic prosperity -- and also makes me wonder whether I *really* need to work so hard.
New to me in this morning’s climate change news, the New York Times mentions
carbon dioxide promotes the growth of invasive weeds far more than it stimulates crops and . . . it reduces the nutritional value of some rangeland grasses.
That’s important and troubling information.
Was this fact already well known and I just missed it?