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.

Earth Day

The atmosphere of Mars is made up of over 90% carbon dioxide, with less than 1% oxygen. Nitrogen appears to be almost non-existent on the little red planet. Back home here, however, no matter how much we humans try to foul it up, our air is some 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Carbon dioxide comprises less than 1% of what we are living in.

Further, scientists tell us that while it can hit 70 degrees Fahrenheit on Mars, it can still drop to -100 at night… colder at the poles. Water, is scarce if it is there at all.

These are a few things scientists have been able to discern about the planet next beyond us, some 49 million miles off in space. In part they can tell that because of things like the Mars Rover , the probe which just stopped transmitting pictures back a few years after it was sent roving at a cost of just over $2 billion.

My point is that for me, Mars doesn’t sound like a treat. That two billion dollars might be better used here making this little planet, the one with the water and the sunlight and the fish, more livable for us. Whether you’re religious and see Earth as a gift of God or just practical, it’s difficult to suggest that we as a people would be better off somewhere way off in the galaxy than right here. So, no offense to the chocolate-laden bunny and the day we celebrated yesterday but I think today is a pretty important one on the calendar.  Earth Day.

I guess it just comes naturally to me. My parents, for all their differences, were both avid gardeners and loved spending time outside when the weather was fair. I grew up watching Wild Kingdom. To me Marlon Perkins was as much a star as Robert Blake or the Three Stooges were to some of my classmates. Other little kids (apparently, we’re told) aspired to be astronauts or firemen or pro hockey players when they grew up; I dreamed of being a weatherman. By the time I was ten, I’d probably have corrected anyone who said “weatherman” since it seemed rather common and commercial. A “meteorologist” was my dream destiny, studying and forecasting our weather, the power and fickle nature of our atmosphere. I had a wind vane on the garden shed, barometer, thermometer with a reading inside from the device placed outside the window, you name it. I recorded the data in a little log book.

I never did become a professional meteorologist; when high school was winding down I looked at the course load and thought there was too much physics and calculus involved in a specialty degree in meteorology, too little looking at maps or chasing storms across the countryside. Besides, seeing perhaps a limited scope of possibilities for the profession, I feared getting assigned to some weather station in a remote and arctic hick town rather than the environs of Toronto I was familiar with. My love of weather has stuck though; a couple of years back I took a course to become a certified amateur weather reporter, trained to know when common a garden thunderstorms become something to be concerned by and how to report the info.

Weather might have evaporated like a passing cirrus cloud in my career goals, but by the time I hit university, I’d segued into another area of earth science. For the college summers and a while right after, I worked in a park service, doing this and that. Some days I’d be leading school tours around conservation areas, others I might be out looking for wildlife coming up with biological surveys of areas of interest. I wrote up brochures for the public and scientific reports for the agency. I felt like I was accomplishing something important for the future.

Life’s taken a lot of twists and turns since then but one thing that’s never changed for me is my love of nature…and my concern for our environment. If there’s a blue box around, that can and newspaper is going in it. If I’m a passenger in the car I’m probably watching the birds on the power lines. When I have some extra mad money, some of it will probably go to the local nature organization or the national Nature Conservancy, which realizes government can’t do everything and tries to buy up important natural areas before they get paved and turned into parking lots, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

More and more we’re realizing for us to thrive, nature has to thrive as well. Cities which are poorly planned and have too much development in the river valleys tend to be cities which flood. Ones with forested valleys not so much. Planners have found that marshes – old-fashioned cattail ponds – can clean up our water about as well as filtration plants…and they cost a lot less. When we have lots of swallows and flycatchers, we don’t have as many mosquitoes and we don’t have to spray a lot of costly chemicals which may or may not kill us in the long run as effectively as the insects they’re supposed to combat.

So here’s to Earth Day. Here’s to all those who choose to live a little “greener” and look down at the ground instead of up to the stars when dreaming of a home for the kids and grandkids.

Earth – third from the sun, first in our heart.

Mars? Meh.

I was just a tyke when Neil Armstrong got out of the lunar module and walked on the moon. If you believe. I don’t remember the actual event, but like most kids of my generation I was fascinated by space. My family visited the Kennedy Space Center when I was 8 or 9, I thought that huge rocket building was the coolest thing. For a number of years, I had a plastic model of a Saturn rocket similar to the Apollo ones in my bedroom on the dresser. And of course, I watched The Jetsons and perhaps thought that George and Judy’s life might be the one we’d all be rocketing into at some point.

But things happened and time went by. We watched the Space Shuttles go up, and come back. We watched one Space Shuttle blow up a mile or two off the ground, incinerating all the astronauts within. And one by one, as each Shuttle returned and smiling astronauts stepped out, it seemed like … there wasn’t much to show for it except a photo opp or two and a fancy-looking jet that goes up higher than your run-of-the-mill 747. I grew up. After a while there was no rocket on my dresser (railroad locomotive, perhaps, but that’s a story for another day.)

Which leads us to today as some sort of robot launced by NASA landed on – yawn – Mars. Headlines this morning said “Anxiety abounds at NASA as Mars landing day arrives.” It explained that the odds were decent but no sure thing that the spaceship was going to be able to decelerate through Mars’ atmosphere from 12 300 MPH to zero in all of six minutes, then land without destroying itself. But if it did, if it became the 8th successful American probe to land there (out of 9 attempts), we’d get photos of the “Red planet” . After about 8 minutes. That’s apparently how long it takes radio waves to travel the close to 300 million miles between our planets.

What’s more, it will pick up some rocks and run a probe to see if it feels “marsquakes”… presumably so if the rock is shaking, we know where to build a New San Francisco if we go frontier-a-making.

Which all makes me second Love It Or List It (an HGTV show) star David Visentin’s tweet : “one of our measuring tools is touching down on Mars…on Monday. Odd how I am so ‘meh’ about it. How did that happen?” Meh, Amen.

Do you really care if there are earthquakes on Mars? Do you really have a need to see some bare rocky ground millions of miles away? And if, to the surprise of everyone, the cameras found some E.T.s cavorting around and posing for space selfies, do you really believe the authorities would share that with us? My answer to all those is “I don’t.”

What actually bugs me about it though, is the cost. This InSight probe, today’s landing veseel, will cost us about $2.1 billion dollars. The scientists proudly point out that is some $400 million less than the similar one they sent back in 2011 – they perfected the technology a little and had a few spare parts clanking around in the garage.

To me, a few photos of a barren land years away for any of us and perhaps a bit of data about what the rocks are made of is hardly worth over two billion. In all, NASA has a budget of just a whisker under $20 billion this year, or about $65 for every adult and child in the U.S. Now, to be fair, they do accomplish more than send a few probes out into space. We all use satellites, many of which they launch, for things like our phones and TV service and the weather forecasts we rely on that in turn rely on satellite photos of our planet. Still, it seems like maybe we could trim that down a few pesos and not be any the worse for wear.

Perhaps the prevailing reason people want to get to Mars and beyond is uttered by Space X/Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The eccentric Texas billionaire is planning to offer space trips to ordinary people soon, and recently signed up the first candidate – a Japanese fashion executive who wants to go to the moon. Musk says “we should take action and become a multi-planetary civilization as soon as possible”, just in case some “event ends civilization.”

Well, this earthling likes Earth just fine. I don’t want to go and live on some distant, barren rocky planet. It seems like instead of fretting over how livable other (we’re told) entirely uninhabited, lifeless bodies out in space could be, we might do better doing what we can to make our planet better. More livable. Less succeptible to “an event” which would end civilization.

Two billion dollars could do a lot to help create renewable energy which wouldn’t despoil our planet. Or maybe buy and plant about 400 million trees, which could reforest about 6000 square miles, if my math is right. Which would go a long ways to adding oxygen to and cleaning our atmosphere. Or finance the top-quality university education of something like 20 000 smart kids. – kids who adults could probably solve a lot of problems if they concentrate on earth and humanity, not rocks hundreds of millions of miles away. And probably tell me in a second if my tree math was correct.

But that’s just “meh” talking.

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