My Number One Planet…How ‘Bout You?

Happy Earth Day! I’m thankful someone about 50 years back had the foresight to begin a special day to think about and pay attention to this wonderful planet we call our own.

In Earth Day news, I was pleased to read that a team of researchers this winter were able to find, and get some photos of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Louisiana. I’ve mentioned them before, perhaps the most iconic of American birds, a giant woodpecker of the Southern deep woods and swamps that many are for some reason eager to write off as extinct. So even though their findings made news as far afield as British newspapers, it will likely not change people’s minds if they inexplicably want the bird to be gone. There are a series of odd paradoxes and errors in logic applied to the secretive bird. For instance, people who manage to get a poor quality photo or video of one (the bird was long hunted by both Natives and settlers and is thus remarkably shy around people) get written off because the pictures are deemed “not good enough” or “inconclusive.” Come up with a decent photo of one, as happened one time in the ’70s, and the same experts say the photo is too good and thus must be staged or fake. Anyway, without belaboring the point, let’s say that optimists among us are pleased that there’s still more evidence that the “ghost bird” still flies….adding to the 40+ records, several photographic, detailed by naturalist/author Christopher Haney in the first decade of the 2000s alone in areas as far flung as southernmost Illinois and coastal North Carolina.

Undertaking a serious search for a bird like that takes money, which brings me to my main Earth Day theme. Last night somehow our family got talking about Elon Musk, which generated some strong opinions pro and con. Personally, I admire his curiosity and ambition but question many of his choices. Especially his fixation on Mars. The Space X guy keeps firing rockets up, many just going a few miles then falling back down, and is full-speed ahead on getting to Mars. He even hopes to be able to build a city there by 2050. To which, again, I ask “why?”

A brief science tutorial. The average temperature on the Red Planet is anything but red hot – about -80 F in fact. And while there is an atmosphere, it’s nothing like ours. It contains only 1% oxygen (Earth’s atmosphere is about 21%) . So you’d better take along some woolly socks and maybe a few air tanks if you want to go space truckin’. Obviously, any habitation there would require huge domes with oxygen (presumably rocketed in from here) piped in and some form of climate control… not to mention water tankered in from… well, your kitchen taps. There’s no water there they we know of either.

Musk casually throws around figures into the trillions of dollars required to build a permanent settlement there. But I thought, let’s get back closer to the imaginable and look a the cost of just one manned flight getting there and back home safely. NASA put the cost of that at just under $3 billion. Three billion to fly for months or years, get out , maybe knock a golf ball a few feet, say something like it’s another small step for man… then hightail back to our little blue ball in space.

Now, if it’s NASA that comes from the pockets of you and me. If Elon does it, it comes from his own deep pockets (which of course have been funded by our consumer choices.) Still, whoever funds it, doesn’t it seem just a bit wrong to spend so much for so little?

To put it in context, here are a few things that could be done with $3 b down here. For instance, take the Amazon. Not the warehouse that sends you books on how to straighten your hair and shiny hair curlers, but the big old rainforest in South America. It’s deforestation is having serious effects on the climate of the southern Hemisphere, adding to extinctions of many species of plants and animals and ultimately creates farmland that’s only usable for a couple of years due to overall lack of nutrients in the soil – which quickly bakes anyway. Bloomberg magazine estimates it costs, on average under $1000 to buy an acre of actual rainforest there. Some United Nations agencies suggest it might be up to $2000. If we split the difference and guess $1500, that means you could buy a full square mile of jungle (640 acres) for just shy of a million. For the cost of one Mars flight, you could save about 3000 square miles. For two flights, you could buy an area of forest as big as Connecticut and have money left over to pay for security and game wardens, or maybe pay the Natives who try in vain to have sustainable farms on the land. Brazil might be encouraging its use for lumber right now, but do we think they’d turn down an offer of several hundred billion dollars up front to turn a good chunk of the Amazon into a natural reserve? I don’t.

Or, we could tackle the problem of “greenhouse heating” and our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. Obviously, energy is a big and complex problem lacking easy solutions, but let’s just imagine how much of a difference wider use of solar power could make. In areas well-suited to it – particularly fast-growing Sun Belt locales like Texas and Arizona – a substantial amount of the electricity consumed could come from “Mr. Sol”. Getting definitive stats on the costs of that are tricky, but averages suggest it would take about 24 normal solar panels on the roof of one 1500 sq. foot house in such areas to provide enough electricity to run it completely. Typical prices to have those installed, are about $15 000 per house. A bit expensive, but a long-term investment that eventually pays for itself. Well, that $3 billion could get about 200 000 houses off the conventional grid and self-sustaining. Not an answer to all the problems, but enough to make most of El Paso, or Austin no longer dependent on oil or gas… and create a ton of jobs in the process. Those panels don’t float themselves up to the roofs or get hooked up. Every Mars flight could be Tucson, or part of Phoenix, or San Bernadino going “green” instead.

Or let’s think smaller still, and more hands-on. Trees add oxygen to our atmosphere, prevent erosion and flooding and of course, are home to beneficial birds. Not to mention cute squirrels. How about a giant tree-planting campaign. Reforest some of the abandoned farms in the Midwest and New England, fill in some empty lots in run-down cities, give each school child a tree for wherever they want it. Little oak saplings cost about 89 cents each and are ideal shade trees and food sources for wildlife. Rounding up to a dollar each, that could be about three billion trees for the cost of the rocket flight. Even if we cut that in half, and added in some extra soil and paid some out-of-work people to put them in the ground if volunteers were in short supply, a billion and a half trees would be growing.

Well that’s a lot of acorns and a lot of forest in the making. Assuming we plant them about ten feet apart, you’d need something like 500 per acre. Three billion dollars? That’s about two million acres growing, or about 3000 square miles. An area bigger than Delaware going green for every Mars shot.

That’s just a start. I’m sure many of you could come up with equally inventive and beneficial ways to put that money to use. Personally, I’d admire Mr. Musk a lot more if he used his creative noodle to come up with ways to help our one and only planet rather than think about how we, as a species can move and despoil another one.

Will Phones Be Invisible By 2097?

One of the cool gifts I was given this past Christmas was a thick book titled Strange But True Science. A compendium of interesting facts, it covers topics that vary from Area 51 and a bit of UFO lore to about five pages on the history of roads (Romans built a 50 000 mile highway system in their empire, with stone roads running as far afield as Spain. Who knew?) to a look at whether Vitamin C prevents colds (their verdict – no, but it might have a slightly beneficial effect in preventing heart disease.)

One thing that caught my attention was their entry on mobile phones. I always was surprised that in the 1954 movie Sabrina, one of the business mogul brothers played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, has a phone in his limo. Both brothers wanted to impress Sabrina, played by Audrey Hepburn. The car phone seemed far-fetched to me, yet I wondered how they would have incorporated such a thing if it didn’t exist in reality. I think I first encountered one over three decades after the movie so it was mind-boggling to think of them being around in the ’50s. Turns out, it wasn’t fantasy…but it wasn’t common by any stretch of the imagination.

The book says that as far back as 1946, Bell Labs had established a mobile telephone network in St. Louis, and soon AT&T had it available in a hundred cities across the country. But it wasn’t for everyone. For one thing, callers could only call within the same set of antennae, which is to say basically in-town, local calls only. Worse, only three frequencies were available, “limiting calls to only three users per city”! But with the phone and receiver combined weighing 80 pounds at the time and the service charge of $15 a month (close to $200 a month in today’s funds), it might have been tough to find even three buyers in some cities.

By 1967, prototype celphones were built, but they were limited by their bulk and need for the caller to stay fairly close to the “base station” when using it. Fast-forward another 26 years and an early “smart phone” was made by IBM, allowing for e-mail and even faxing from the phone, but its’ brick-like heft and short battery life meant it wasn’t quite finding its way into many back pockets.

Now? Well, we know the story. As of last year, 97% of Americans had celphones, and 85% of those were “smart phones.” Around the world, 78% of all people have a phone in their pockets…even those who probably don’t have clothes to have a pocket in. Countries as far-flung as Uganda and Azerbaijan have 100% of their land covered by cell networks (it’s estimated you can use your cell in a little over 99% of the U.S. landmass.) Facts I quickly checked by…my celphone and Google.

Now, while I love being able to make a call if I need to when I’m out, or check the latest ball scores – if there were in fact ballgames being played, but that’s a story for another blog – or the weather from a parking lot along the way, I tend to think we love our phones and rely on them a bit too much. But what it does tell me is how much the world can change quickly. In terms of human history, 75 years is a blink of the eye. But telephones were things wired into walls you had to stand still at, and quite possibly shared the line with others with. Devices which cost you an exorbitant amount of money to use to call someone in the next county with, let alone the next country. Now, handheld devices let you get in touch with most people through much of the globe on the go, comparatively cheaply. And let you check your mail or read the news while you’re on hold. It’s an amazing leap forward.

What it gives me hope about is thinking that if we can use technology to make “space age” “sci-fi” phones a reality in 75 years, imagine what other problems we can solve by the 22nd century, if not sooner. Climate change? Our need for fossil fuel energy depleting our resources and despoiling our land and oceans? Toxic chemicals needed to combat pests, many of them invasive? New airborne diseases emerging from Third World markets and threatening humankind ? Hey, we got this! If we can make an 80-pound phone that only called others within about a five miles radius fit in our pocket and instantly call someone on a different continent, these problems too should be solvable. All it takes it enough bright minds and some imagination. And perhaps a latter-day Audrey Hepburn to impress.

Thankful Thursday XXXIX – Sasquatch, And Other Things We Don’t Know

This Thankful Thursday (or Saturday) I’m thankful to not be a Know-it-all…although some who’ve known me might dispute that assertion! I’m actually glad no one’s a “know-it-all”. I’m glad there are still things we, as a species, haven’t figured out yet. thankful for mystery. After all, who doesn’t love a good Agatha Christie story? I’m glad there are things that are like that for all of us, and that unlike her books, haven’t yet been wrapped up neatly with a “that solves that” answer.

I thought of that this week while reading a book about American parks. The author categorized a couple of national parks – Congaree and Crater Lake as “mystery.” Fair enough. Neither gets a lot of traffic and both have an air of mystery around them. Crater Lake is said to be the deepest lake in the U.S., but sits hidden in the mountains. It took decades to be found, even after the Oregon Territory had been settled and rumors of its existence abounded. Furthermore, there’s a huge log that floats around it sticking upright for totally unexplained reasons. Congaree is a deep, floodplain swamp, ancient cypress trees growing out of the murky water. Bugs, Water Moccasins and alligators abound, and trails are few so not surprisingly, so too are casual day-tripping sightseers. Adding to the mystery of the place are occasional reports suggesting that maybe, just maybe, two of the rarest types of birds in the Americas still live there – the fabled Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the diminutive Bachman’s Warbler. Both have always been, by most accounts rare and hard to find, preferring just the inhospitable flooded forests that Congaree offers. The tiny warbler, a bright yellow little songbird that eats bugs, hasn’t been seen for decades. The woodpecker, on the other hand, is large, showy…but wary of humans at best. It was last heard from in 2005 when some blurry video in an Arkansas swamp seemed to show one fly by, backed up by disputed eye-witness sightings there. If either still exists is debatable, but nature-lovers like myself live in hope that they are…perhaps in Congaree’s dark recesses.

They’re mysteries not too unlike the “great” American one – Sasquatch. The famed Bigfoot has been reported since Europeans began to settle the Pacific coast forests…and long before by the local Natives who had various names for it including “Sasquatch”. For over a hundred years people have wondered if they exist, and gone out searching for them, with little to show so far. A few videos which might have been faked, suggestively huge footprints in mud, weird unearthly screaming sounds in the forest. One wonders why, with the settlers love of guns, someone along the way hasn’t shot one, inethical as that might be, or hit one with a car. Likewise though, one wonders how there could be so many similar stories through the pre-internet decades of big, unknown ape-like creatures from Montana to B.C. if something we don’t yet know is out there. It’s a mystery.

UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, what’s out on the outer limits of the universe… no one really knows yet. That’s exciting to the scientific part of me…and comforting to the spiritual part that likes to think that no matter how smart people are, we’re still dwarfed by something bigger than all of us…something that has the answers but will only share them when we’re ready. Til then, if we want to know, all we can do is load up on bugspray and head out into the forest primeval.

Thankful Thursday XXIII – Finer Forecasting

The weather around here seemed to have settled into a typical mid-summer routine this week, with sunny, hot, humid days, muggy nights, line-ups at frozen treat stands and the ever-present hum of air conditioners providing the outdoor soundtrack. The forecast early yesterday gave us a 0% chance of rain until early next week.

You guessed it, didn’t you? As the afternoon wore on, clouds built and darkened and by about 7 PM, the house was shaking from the thunder and rain was being blown nearly horizontally. Oops! Local meteorologists were a bit red-faced about that one I imagine. But the thing that struck me was, despite that being a total miss, forecast-wise, these days that type of occurrence is a rarity. So this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for the vast improvements in forecasting that have taken place even in the past three decades or so.

When I was a kid, jokes abounded about how inaccurate the “weatherman” was. It sometimes seemed your best bet to know what to wear would be sticking your head out the door in the morning and using your own “gut feeling”; planning outdoor weekend activities based on the forecast on a Wednesday was essentially as reliable as throwing darts at a board blind-folded. When I was a kid, I was very much a nerd and by age 12 or so had a little weather station at home, looked at weather maps and kept some records. For months I made up my own forecasts for the following day and found my accuracy was at least as good as the official government-produced ones. A lot has changed since then.

While satellite pictures were available back then, they have been greatly improved upon. Old ones were merely photos which showed where clouds were; now they can also collect info on the amount of moisture in the clouds, temperatures and all sorts of other things. When we began going to Florida on holiday, I became familiar with weather radars, shown endlessly on TV news there. Back then, the radar showed where it was raining… and that was it. If the area of the map was white, it was raining. If it was dark, it wasn’t. That was the extent of the data. Fast forward about 40 years and as most people who watch news, let alone specialty weather channels know, Doppler radars with their multi-colored displays can tell you just about everything except what type of bird is flying over your house. They’re likely working on that upgrade as we speak. The radar can show not only if there’s precipitation, but how hard it is falling and whether it’s rain, snow, sleet or a combination thereof. Other settings on them can show wind speed and direction, or if there’s debris at a certain altitude. Needless to say, that kind of information can make picking up a tornado before it starts a trail of destruction much easier than it ever has been. All the data is put into powerful computers which do what computers do, analyze billions of bits of information from decades of study and spin out surprisingly accurate forecasts days in advance.

Weather forecasting. It’s an area where science has made huge strides to improve our lives in a matter of a few decades. But, as last night shows, sometimes still nothing beats using your eyes and ears and a bit of common sense. Which is not bad advice when it comes to just about anything in life really.

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