Thursday, December 14, 2017

Drowning in Plastic

Sometimes I worry about the strangest things. Like yesterday I worried whether the plastic drink cup I saw tossed from a car window will end up in the ocean.

It’s entirely possible. The wind blows it into a creek that flows into a lake drained by a river that goes to Lake Ontario, into the St. Lawrence River and eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean. Plastic never decomposes completely, so that cup has plenty of time to make the journey.

If it does, it will join the estimated10 million tons of plastic entering the oceans every year. The scientific journal PLOS ONE has published a study that estimates there now are 270,000 tons of plastic floating on the oceans. Some of these floating carpets are dense enough to block sunlight from entering the water.

All that plastic has an impact on wildlife. A University of British Columbia study found that 93 percent of beached northern fulmars had plastic in their bellies. Fulmars are migratory seabirds related to the albatross.

Ocean plastic pollution is estimated to kill or injure more than 260 species around the world.

A good chunk of ocean plastic debris is plastic bags. We Canadians use nine to 15 billion plastic bags a year, says the environmental group Greener Footprints. That is enough plastic bags to encircle the earth 55 times. (Folks in the U.S. use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags every year.)

Plastics are a helpful and important part of life today. They are in almost everything that we use but the problem is that, like many other things, we overuse them.

Plastic bags are an example. Various sources estimate the world uses up to one trillion plastic bags a year, or roughly one million every minute. Only one in every 200 of those bags gets recycled.

There is so much concern about plastic bags damaging the environment that user
fees, restrictive laws and outright bans are being put in place. A variety of Canadian cities have, or are considering, measures to control plastic bag use.

Some African nations have placed controls or outright bans on plastic bags. Kenya has passed laws under which anyone selling or importing plastic bags can get up to four years in prison.

Rwanda has declared plastic bags contraband. It is illegal to produce, import, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like health care. Rwandan border guards say women have been caught smuggling plastic bags – tucking them into their bras and underpants.

Plastics are only one part, albeit a large part, of the world’s waste pollution problem. Even all the admirable efforts being made to recycle are hitting snags. Too often there is too much recyclable waste to recycle.

China, the world’s largest importer of waste for recycling, has announced that it will restrict the type of waste it imports for recycling. The Chinese import huge amounts of waste, which they recycle for producing goods they export for sale, or use for themselves.

The U.S. shipped $56 billion worth of scrap to China last year, mainly plastic, metal and paper. European Union countries send 87 per cent of all their plastic waste to China.

The problem is that recyclable waste often contains contaminants that must be sorted and removed before recycling. Sorting and removing contaminants costs time and money. China will no longer will take waste containing more than 0.5 per cent contaminants.

Experts say it will be nearly impossible to meet the 0.5 per cent target. So the U.S. and other major waste exporters to China will be stuck with huge amounts of waste.

The real answer to stopping waste pollution, plastic and otherwise, will not be found only in recycling. We all need to use less; stop our incredible overuse of almost everything. And, focus and educate ourselves about what is happening to our environment.

Some will argue that using more is good for the economy. More products rolling off conveyor belts mean more jobs and more money.

Yes, but we all should pause and consider a quote from Edward Abbey, the American writer and environmentalist:

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Drama from the Brits

I’ve not been caught up in and enraptured by the romantic British drama of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle.

Much of the world has and is feverishly awaiting answers to the big questions: When exactly will the wedding be? What will she wear? Will Harry shave for the wedding? Will they get pregnant immediately?

I haven’t had time for the American princess drama. Too busy with another British  drama, the BBC television series Peaky Blinders.

Peaky Blinders is a captivating but raw show about a family street gang operating in the industrial slums of Birmingham in the early 1920s. The gang was into a variety of thuggery and corruption, plus illegal betting, horse-race fixing, extortion and murder.

The Peaky Blinders was a real life Birmingham gang, but its story is heavily fictionalized in the BBC show. It operated between the late 1880s and the start of the First World War in 1914. The show sets the heyday of the Blinders much later - after that war and into the early 1920s.

The name Peaky Blinders comes from the peaked Tweed flat caps worn by its members. A gang member would head butt a person, the peak of the cap striking the victim across the eyes, temporarily blinding him. Another version of gang history has members sewing razor blades into cap peaks.

The caps were specially popular among working class men and teenagers in the late 1880s.

The show follows the gang family’s rise from basic street thugs to a sophisticated criminal organization that has police and politicians in its pocket. Thomas Shelby, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is the leader of the gang, composed of his brothers, an aunt and a passel of petty criminals.

Variety, the weekly American entertainment magazine and website, gave the show a brutal review after it first appeared in autumn 2013. It has played three seasons now and a fourth is planned. The first three seasons have been picked up by Netflix.

“Handsome but hollow,” wrote Variety reviewer Brian Lowry. “Even armed with razor blades, it doesn’t quite cut it.”

Lowry’s definitely was a minority opinion. Variety’s website was plugged with comments from viewers who did not agree with the review.

 “This series is phenomenal!!!’ wrote one commenter. “Hollywood is incapable of putting out this quality.” (I tend to agree. Hollywood is slipping behind overseas productions).

Peaky Blinders is a very watchable story with suspense, unexpected twists and a great portrayal of a hard-nosed, tough-talking family whose members, despite their differences, are truly bonded to each other. Characters are well played and the dialogue is excellent, something we have come to expect from British shows.

The show is brutally raw, increasingly so as the series progresses. The violence moves from general thumpings and knifings to the gun play you expect from American television. 

Ditto the sex scenes, which leave little to the imagination as the series rolls along. The final episode of Season 3 features an orgy the likes of which I’ve never seen on TV.

Season 3 was close to being overdone. It confirms my belief that television series are best ended after one or two seasons. When they run longer, producers and writers stretch to get stuff that will titillate viewers.

What I like best about Peaky Blinders is the showing of what life was like in Birmingham (and many other cities) 100 years ago. The poverty, the lack of education, the corruption and the moral rot.

We have come a long way since then. British and North American societies are better today: more civilized, better educated, morally elevated and have learned better health habits. (Tommy Shelby smokes a cigarette in almost every scene).

On second thought, are we really that better today?

We dress better, eat better, have more and better appliances and toys. However, the disparity between our haves and have-nots grows alarmingly, jobs continue to disappear, drug addiction is at a crisis level, gun violence is a daily occurrence in our big cities. Corruption and moral rot remain features of our political systems.

The Harry and Meghan drama, like Peaky Blinders, is a temporary escape from the world around us. And, I guess that’s a good thing.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bugs and the End of Life

The bug season is well beyond the coming winter, so it’s safe to write about what wonderful creatures insects are. They do wonderful things for us; pollinate our food crops and flowers, feed the birds, control pests, consume our waste and give us useful things like silk and beeswax.

The most useful thing they are doing now is forecasting the end of life on earth as we know it. They are warning us that we likely are witnessing the earth’s sixth mass extinction.

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” Dave Goulson, a prominent British biologist was quoted in The Guardian newspaper last month. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects, everything is going to collapse.”

That type of talk sounds laughable to anyone who spends time in Haliburton County during May and June. Outside can be a nightmare at that time of year as the blackflies emerge, followed by the mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies, sand flies, gnats and a variety of No-See-Ums.

Yet even in the land of bug abundance there is speculative evidence that some species are disappearing. Black flies are far less frequent than they were 20 years ago.

If you want to collect evidence of your own, pay attention to your auto windshield next spring. Truckers in developed countries have reported fewer windshield bug splatters in recent years.

Various studies around the world are reporting major declines in insect populations.

One German study conducted over 27 years reported recently that flying insect populations in parts of that country have declined by 75 per cent. The latest State of Nature report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggests that United Kingdom insect populations have declined 59 per cent since 1970.

We don’t give insects much thought because they do not appear to have any purpose except to irritate us. The only bugs that receive much human concern are honey bees and Monarch butterflies.

Also, the pesticide industry is a $50 billion a year business that spreads money around governments and elected officials to receive favourable attention and lessened scrutiny.

Insects make up about 70 per cent of all earth’s animal species. Roughly 80 per cent of all wild plants rely on insects for pollination and 60 per cent of birds rely upon them for food.

Certainly insects can be harmful and destructive. Think emerald ash borer and other nasty bugs that are sickening our forests. Or, malaria and West Nile, diseases that are a curse on humanity.

But we must balance our thinking about bugs. The dangers of insect population declines are serious because bugs are critical to ecosystems that sustain overall life on earth. We need more awareness of the ecological importance of diverse and abundant insect populations.

Back in 1992, a group of 1,700 scientists from around the world issued a warning that humans had pushed ecosystems to the breaking point that could ruin life on the planet.

Now 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have issued a follow-up to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1992 warning.

"Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse," says the follow-up warning. "Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory."

There is hope, however, that a sixth mass extinction can be prevented. Decisive action on chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals found in aerosol cans, refrigerators and air conditioners, has shrunk the dangerous hole in the earth’s protective ozone layer.

"The rapid global decline in ozone depleting substances shows that we can make positive change when we act decisively," says the follow-up from the world’s scientists.

We can act decisively by learning more about what is happening in the insect world and how it affects us. Because if the decline of insect populations is a sign that a sixth mass extinction is underway, we need to worry that humanity might be one of the species that does not survive it.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Come December

December looms on the late November horizon, leaving us wondering how it will treat us this year. Will it be cruel or will it be kind? It has been both in recent years.

Last December was a brute. It was slightly warmer than average but it snowed 27 of 31 days in Haliburton County. Snowfall totalled 134 centimetres, more than twice the average for December.

The year before that - 2015 - was extremely kind. It snowed on only 12 of the 31 December days, and measurable snow was recorded on the ground on only seven days because average temperatures were well above normal.

There is some evidence that this December will not be so gentle.

Expect "a wild ride from start to finish,” the Weather Network said in its Canadian winter forecast released this week. There will be changeable weather patterns featuring extended periods of “high impact weather.”

“High impact weather” is not defined but I translate it to mean rain and freezing rain one week, monster snowfalls the next, then a couple of days of bone shattering cold. A truly genuine mix of miserable winter weather.

Ontario, says The Weather Network, can expect above average snowfall and near normal temperatures.

That forecast follows early predictions by the Canadian Farmer’s Almanac. It predicts much ice, cold and snow for Ontario this winter. Snowfall will be above normal and cold below normal with some places going as low as minus 40 Celsius.

The Almanac says it has 80 to 85 per cent accuracy in its forecasts, except in El Nino years of which 2018 is not one.

Environment Canada, which hedges its bets in statistical gobbledygook and scientific language, appears to be forecasting colder than average temperatures and above average snowfall. 

Generally, this year’s winter forecasts have been hedged and as varied as a pot luck dinner menu. The reason is that forecasters are uncertain how water temperatures on the Great Lakes will affect Ontario’s winter.

Lake Huron temperatures were below average during an unusually wet and cool summer. That changed quickly, however, with a sunny, warm autumn. Lake Huron’s surface temperature was close to 22 Celsius in late October and has remained above normal.

Warm surface water on Lake Huron can bring lake-effect snow to Muskoka and Haliburton. Cold, dry air picks up heat and moisture when it passes over the warm lake surface, creating bands of lake-effect snow.

The warmer the water and the colder the air, the more intense the lake-effect snow bands become.

December is an ideal month for lake-effect snow storms because the lake surface is still warm relative to the colder air passing over them. Extremely cold weather freezes the water, obscuring the moisture and heat and making it difficult for lake-effect snow to develop.

Lake-effect snow bands are long and narrow, averaging six kilometres in width and stretching 50 to 400 kilometres in length.

Wind speed often determines how far a lake-effect snow band stretches. Weak winds usually see the snow falling along Lake Huron’s shorelines and into western Muskoka. Strong winds can bring it into Haliburton County.

The good news is that when winds are exceptionally strong they pass over the lake’s surface too quickly for snow bands to form.

No matter what the weather gives us this December, one thing is certain: Lake-effect snowstorms are going to be an increasing factor in our winter lives.

Annual average ice cover on the Great Lakes has declined 71 per cent in the last 40 years, says the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Centre (GLISA) based in Michigan. Total annual precipitation increased in the Great Lakes region by 11 per cent during the same period.

The centre also says average temperatures in the Great Lakes region have increased two degrees Fahrenheit (1.1C) since 1900.

For anyone who wants to compare this December’s weather as it moves along, here are some statistical averages:

The average high December for Haliburton County is minus 1.5 Celsius. The average low minus 12.5C. The record high for December was 14.5 C recorded on Dec. 5, 2001. The record low was minus 38.5 recorded December 27, 1993. The average December snowfall is 59 centimetres.