Archive for [lang_en]the[/lang_en][lang_fr]la[/lang_fr] ‘Pollution’ Category

Nuclear power and radiation exposure: should you worry?

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Mention nuclear power to someone, and, of course, the subject of radiation exposure comes up. Radiation is a subject that, rightly or wrongly, strikes fear into a lot of hearts. But why?

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station
Image by Mark H via Flickr

Some people believe that there is no level of exposure which is safe, and that any radiation of any kind must be avoided. Some believe that nuclear power stations emit radiation, much as coal-fired stations emit smoke. Political parties like Europe Ecologie even claim, in their manifesto, that we should abandon nuclear power in France because of the radiation it puts out. These views are very widely held, but is there any truth in them?

I don’t think so. I think that radiation exposure can be perfectly safe providing the level is low enough, because zero exposure is simply not possible. You and I are exposed to several sources of background radiation on a constant basis, and I feel just fine, thank you very much! Let me tell you about some of these sources.

One source is my own body. No, I don’t glow in the dark, but like all people, my body emits a low level of background radiation. Potassium and carbon isotopes present in the body contribute about one tenth of the total radiation we receive.

Radiation also reaches us from outer space, and it comes up from the ground. It varies from place to place, but there’s nowhere on earth that you can avoid it. Medical procedures, such as x-rays and scans, also contribute to our exposure.

What if we stay indoors, and never go to the doctor? Alas, that might not help. Many things found indoors emit low levels of radiation. Granite, which we might use for our kitchen workspace, is one example. Natural gas, which we use to heat our homes and cook our food, is another. Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, can build up in confined spaces such as homes. Radon accounts for fully half of the exposure we get. So staying indoors might well increase your exposure!

Many buildings, such as Grand Central Station in New York, have higher than average background radiation levels, because of the materials they were constructed with. The radiation emitted by Grand Central Station exceeds the levels allowed for a nuclear power plant. Think about that next time you’re waiting for a train!

Taking the plane may not be much better. Airline pilots and frequent flyers can receive twice as much radiation as those of us who stay on the ground, because the thinner air at high altitude provides less protection against radiation from space.

What about nuclear power stations, how much radiation do we get from them? Not much. About 0.014%. That means that, of your daily dose of radiation, nuclear power accounts for 12 seconds worth. Nuclear power plants may actually reduce your radiation exposure, because the fossil fuels they displace emit more radiation than they do!

Of course, too much radiation is dangerous. Radiation can and has killed people. But it’s the dose that makes the poison. You can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine from time to time without long-term effects, but drink a bottle of whisky a day and you can expect your liver to pack up. You can smoke the occasional cigar with no worries, but smoke 40 cigarettes a day and don’t be surprised if you end up with lung cancer. So many of the things that we encounter or enjoy in everyday life are toxic in large quantities, yet we don’t notice any adverse effects if we keep our exposure low.

So, you and I are surrounded by radiation, wherever we are and whatever we do. It’s not because we have nuclear power stations, either, the dose they give us is nothing to worry about. Is there any form of radiation that does cause me concern? Well, yes, there is. I try to avoid getting sunburn.

Oh look, a volcano!

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

dust in the air over the Geneva valley

dust in the air over the Geneva valley

Well, maybe not a volcano, exactly, but at sunset yesterday we could certainly see the dust in the air from the eruption in Iceland. The shadow of the cloud shows it very clearly.

Geneva airport is closed, of course. The “Service de protection de l’air” says there’s no need for the population to worry, and that they will let us know if it gets bad. Why is it, then, that at Geneva airport they have put plastic film over the aircraft engines? They need protecting but we don’t?

Maybe the service de protection de l’air thinks that, what with all the industial VOCs that make Geneva smell so bad these days, an extra volcano or two won’t make much difference?

I don’t think I’ll wait for them to tell me the air is bad. We’re keeping an eye on the level of fine pariculates in the air. We’re staying indoors as much as possible with the windows closed and our air filters running.

March diary

Monday, March 8th, 2010

For the eco-minded individual, March is a good month. There are events of all shapes and sizes that you can take part in. Here are a few of them.

Earth Hour - LogoThe biggest event this month will undoubtedly be Earth Hour. It takes place at 8:30 pm local-time on Saturday 27th, wherever you are in the world. Participating is simple, sign up on the website (so they can know how many people take part) and then, when the time comes, just turn off your lights for an hour. The idea is not to save electricity, one hour of lighting won’t make that much difference to anything. No, the idea is to show your support for solid action in favour of tackling climate change. There’s more information on the Earth Hour FAQ, if you’re interested.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people worldwide took part. Towns, cities, and major landmarks across the globe darkened to show their support for action to tackle climate-change. The fact that world leaders let us down in Copenhagen in December only makes it all the more important that we send the message loud and clear once more. So go on, sign up, switch off, and do something different in the dark for an hour!

Bottled water free day logoIf you’re in Canada, there’s another event that might interest you. March 11th has been declared Bottled Water Free Day.

This has been organised by the Canadian Federation of Students, the Sierra Youth Coalition and the Polaris Institute. Their aim is simple, they want to encourage people to pledge to stop drinking bottled water.


Why? Because bottled water represents a great deal of plastic and fuel used to transport water that is no better than tap water – and often is tap water – so that people can pay 1000 times as much as it would cost them to take it from the tap. The bottles leach chemicals into the water, which is not good, and then they often end up in landfill instead of being recycled, which is also not good.

If you’d like to know more, take a look at the video, or click on the logo above to go to the Bottled Water Free Day site.

preparing pesticide - courtesy of

preparing pesticide - courtesy of

Week without pesticides

Week without pesticides

On this side of the pond, there’s the next edition of Semaine sans pesticides (Week without pesticides) coming up, March 20-30. Pesticides are used so heavily these days that people in developed countries are contaminated from birth, which can’t be good. Take a look at the protective gear this guy is wearing in order to spray that stuff on your food!

There are ever-growing numbers of organic farmers out there, so healthier food is becoming more and more available, which is a good thing. For that matter, you can grow your own vegetables organically with little effort, so it’s quite possible to get off the pesticides. It would be great if more farmers took the organic route!

Semaine sans pesticides is a growing event, with participation from all over the world, though most of the events are in France. Why not check out their map and see if there’s something of interest near you. You can turn up and show your support, or simply find out more about the pesticides on your plate.

On a smaller scale, if you’re in Ferney-Voltaire on Monday 29th, drop in to the Cafe du Soleil (14 Grand Rue) at 8pm. The association Eco-pratique will be meeting to discuss reducing electricity consumption, swapping personal experience and ideas. If you’re in the area, drop in and join the fun!

FLOW – For the Love of Water

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

In the latest James Bond film, A Quantum of Solace, our hero thwarts the plans of a major international criminal organisation. They were planning to take control of the government in Bolivia by taking control of the nation’s water supply. That sounded a bit far-fetched to me when I saw it. I didn’t know then that it had already happened! The World Bank forced water-privatisation on Bolivia back in 1997, as part of their preconditions for receiving aid. The companies that took the contracts explicitly excluded many poor city-districts from the water supply, and increased prices dramatically for those that did get water. You can see for yourself some of the bills people were getting. Maybe this James Bond film isn’t so far from the truth after all?

I learned about this by watching a film called FLOW, For Love Of Water, by Irena Salina. You can see this film for yourself via YouTube, it’s available in 8 parts, and they are linked at the end of this article. I can highly recommend it, it’s an eye-opener. Here are some highlights for you.

Water is a $400 billion dollar global industry; the third largest behind electricity and oil. It seems odd to make an industry out of something which is as fundamental to human life as air and food, and which falls from the sky. You’d think there would be enough for everyone, and indeed there ought to be. According to the UN Human Development Report 2006 (chapter 4, page 133):

But absolute scarcity is the exception, not the rule. Most countries have enough water to meet household, industrial, agricultural and environmental needs. The problem is management. Until fairly recently, water has been seen as an infinitely available resource to be diverted, drained or polluted in generating wealth. Scarcity is a policy-induced outcome flowing from this deeply flawed approach, the predictable consequence of inexhaustible demand chasing an underpriced resource.

One in every 10 Bolivian children dies before they are 5 years old, mostly from lack of clean drinking water. Privatisation of water-resources has been a disaster for them. But what about you? Who owns the water you drink? Who owns the water that falls on your land? Probably not you. Some of the earliest empires in the world relied on control of water for their power. Even today, however, it seems that “hydraulic empire” are still very much in existance.

In South Africa, river water can carry cholera and other diseases. Privatisation has led to the installment of pre-pay water meters, at prices that can amount to one fifth of a persons’ income, replacing what used to be free communal pumps. Many families cannot afford to pay for water that used to be freely available. They have no choice but to resort to using untreated water, with all the health risks that involves. Hardly a service to the people.

Jean-Luc Touly, a former accountant with Vivendi/Veolia, asks the question: How can Vivendi shareholders wait 10-15 years for profit from poor people? Obviously they won’t, they’ll be looking for a faster return on their investment. Jean-Luc is now very outspoken against such monopolies controlling our water, and is actively engaged in making another film, “Water Makes Money” on that subject. They are looking for public donations to help cover the costs, follow the link if you’d like to make a donation.

South Africa and Bolivia may seem a long way away to some of us, but there are other stories in the film that may be closer to your home. One story features Michigan residents, who have fought a long-running battle to stop Nestle from pumping their rivers and streams dry. Nestle were originally pumping water at 400 gallons (1500 litres) per minute to bottle and sell. They were not required to pay anything for it, either, so you can imagine how keen they were to get as much as they could. It’s a license to pump money.

The UN estimates it would take $30 billion per year to provide safe clean drinking water to the entire planet. That’s less than $5 per person per year. Consumers in the US spend $100 billion annually on bottled water, which is about a dollar a day for every American. That’s about 70 times as much as they should need to spend.

Clearly water is a lucrative business if it can be provided so cheaply, yet sold so profitably.

Of course, it helps the industry that most of us can’t tell if the water that comes out of a bottle is any good or not. This point is brought home by a hidden-camera scene in a restaurant, where customers happily approve of the bottle of ‘Chateau Robinet’ they are offerred. That’s literally tap-water, to you and me. If we can’t tell the difference, how do we know we’re getting a good product?

Nations go to war to protect access to resources, and water is certainly valuable enough to fight for. Conflict in Africa has been linked to climate-change, and shortage of water is just one of the factors that will make these conflicts worse over time.

Water is a precious thing. Access to clean, safe water should be considered a basic human right, not something to be bought and sold. That’s just wrong.

Heatwaves, Pollution, and Money to Burn

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

heatwave in France

heatwave in France

France is just coming out of a heatwave at the moment. Whenever I think of a heatwave, two things come to mind. The first is the film ‘Grumpy Old Men‘, with Jack lemmon and Walther Matthau. The film starts with the classic Irving Berlin song “We’re having a heatwave”, while they’re bundled up against the snow and ice. We were singing that a lot this winter.

The second thing that comes to mind is the heatwave of 2003, though that was far worse than this one. That one killed tens of thousands of people across Europe, I’m not sure this one has caused any extra deaths yet?

Even if it’s not as strong as the one six years ago, this has still been an unpleasantly hot time. A large part of the south of France has been under yellow or orange alert, meaning that people have been advised to take extra precautions against the heat. Things like staying out of the sun, drinking plenty of water, avoiding strenuous activity in the hotter part of the day. I’ve been playing it safe, and avoiding exerting myself altogether. The only exception has been to water the plants on the terrace. Come to think of it, that’s been hard work, they have needed a lot of water every day this past week!

Several measures were imposed in France to help people cope with the heatwave, from the small-scale to industrial. In some areas, exterior painting with solvent-based paints, and use of petrol-driven garden equipment was banned, while the heatwave ran its course. Industries were told to reduce the amount of pollution they produce, and car-drivers were ordered to reduce speed by 20 mph on major roads, for the same reason. Since the pollution from these sources is made worse by the strong sunlight, this is particularly important at times like this.

Geneva suburbs under smog

Geneva suburbs under smog

The same suburbs on a clear day

The same suburbs on a clear day

But what about when it isn’t so hot? Doesn’t pollution from all these sources matter then? It might be worse in a heatwave, but pollution from cars is dangerous at any time. What if people drove slower all the time, so they always produced less pollution? That’s something easy that we can all do. You can reduce your own contribution to pollution quite a bit that way, and save yourself some money in the process.

Last summer, when petrol prices were high, drivers in France reduced their consumption by 15%. Curiously, that drop in petrol consumption continued into September, even after the price of of petrol came back down again. I don’t know if that trend continues today, I hope so, but I haven’t been able to find out anything.

I know from my own experience that you can save a lot of your fuel costs just by driving gently, and anticipating changes in the traffic around you. My car is 18 years old, but I get on average 48 MPG (UK gallons, that’s 40 MPG in US gallons, or 5.90 l/100km) by driving gently. According to the US government, that’s almost the same as a 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid.

I track my fuel consumption at, you can find me there among the Opel Astras. Fuelly is very easy to use, whenever you fill your petrol tank you just note the mileage, date, and amount of fuel, then enter it into fuelly and it does the maths for you. It’s a great way to see how much petrol you really are using, and to compare yourself with other people. I can see there that, compared to Honda Civic Hybrids that people have registered, I actually get better mileage than one third of them. That’s not bad for such an old car!

You might think that it’s not worth much effort conserving petrol in an old car, but that’s not true. It’s actually easier to make good gains from an older car than from a newer one. Why? Because MPG is a deceptive quantity, and it’s more instructive to think about the amount of petrol it takes to travel a given distance (Gallons Per Mile, or GPM), instead. The more petrol you use to start with, the easier it is to improve, so drivers of older cars can make bigger gains.

For example, if your car does 20 MPG, you need 5 gallons of petrol to travel 100 miles. If you can improve your mileage by 5 MPG, to 25 MPG, you need only 4 gallons of petrol to travel that same 100 miles. You save one gallon. If your car did 40 MPG instead, you would have needed only 2.5 gallons to travel that same 100 miles in the first place. To make a saving of one gallon with that car, you would have to improve your mileage to 67 MPG, an increase of 27 MPG, not 5. Small savings on high-consumption make a big difference.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy an economical car if you can afford it, certainly you should. But if you can’t afford to replace your old banger, you can avoid wasting a lot of money just by paying attention to the way you drive. Why don’t you try it, you might enjoy it? Unless you have money to burn, reducing petrol consumption is a winner all round.

Nuclear Power, Yes Please!

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Nuclear Power, Yes PleaseNuclear power has a bad reputation, and many environmental organisations are so strongly opposed to it that they resort to rather extreme measures. For example, Greenpeace consider any use of nuclear power to be an affront to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which seems a bit of a stretch.

Even the World Wildlife Fund is blatantly fabricating numbers to make nuclear power look bad. You can see that in their ‘G8 Climate Scorecards‘, where they state that they use numbers from fossil-fuels to replace numbers from nuclear power in calculating a nations’ emissions. The WWF scorecards rank France third, for example, despite the fact that it has far lower emissions than England or Germany, which they rank as better! If a company were to use similar methods on their annual reports, we would call it fraud, and expect someone to go to jail.

Six Degrees, Our Future on a Hotter PlanetTo be fair, not all environmentalists are against nuclear power. Mark Lynas, author of ‘Six Degrees, Our Future on a Hotter Planet‘, has declared his support for it. He says the environmental stance is based on myth and dogma, not facts.

So why is it that some environmental organisations are willing to go to such extreme measures and risk tarnishing their reputations to criticise nuclear power? The main reason, of course, is fear, but fear of what? Radiation, perhaps?

Nuclear power can, in principle, lead to radiation exposures in a variety of ways:

  • nuclear accidents, meltdowns, failures of safety systems, leaks large or small
  • long-lived radioactive waste that will be here until well after the human race has gassed itself to extinction with fossil fuels
  • proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, using radioactive materials produced by nuclear reactors
  • terrorists, either attacking a nuclear power plant or stealing radioactive material to make bombs

That list can be summed up in two groups: harm caused by the reactor or associated machinery (provoked or accidental), or harm caused by the waste produced during normal operation of the facility.

So what if it were possible to build a reactor that could not malfunction in a harmful manner? That would solve one problem. What if that reactor produced only short-lived nuclear waste which was easy to manage and not useful for making bombs? That would solve the other problem. Surely that would make nuclear power more attractive to everyone?

As it happens, you can produce nuclear power safely, with minimal and manageable waste. Oh and it’s not difficult either, it’s been done already, about 30 years ago. It’s called an ‘Integral Fast Reactor‘ (IFR), and there’s a very good summary of it by Barry Brook in ‘Brave New Power for the World‘, or an easy Q&A summary by George Stanford at The National Center for Public Policy Research.

Prescription For The PlanetIFRs are specifically designed to address those two major problems, safety and waste. They also happen to be extremely efficient, cost-effective, and easy to construct. If they’re so good, you might wonder why the world hasn’t heard much about them? The project to develop the Integral Fast Reactor was shut down by the Clinton administration in 1994, and since Bill Clinton’s energy secretary at the time was a former lobbyist for the fossil-fuel industries, that more than likely has something to do with it. In Tom Blees’ book, ‘Prescription For The Planet‘, there’s an account of the history and operation of IFRs. The Department of Energy actually issued a directive that the technology was not to be publicised, which you might interpret as the need to keep it a secret. Odd, then, that the chief engineer for the project, Leonard Koch, was awarded an international prize by Vladimir Putin for the work he had done. No state secrets there!

Back to those two big questions, first, why do I say that IFRs are safe? Their safety does not come from redundant backup safety systems, highly trained operators, or anything like that. Their safety comes from the laws of physics. We use the laws of physics every day in all sort of mundane safety systems. The fuse in your television, the emergency-release valve on your pressure cooker, and even the thermostat on your central heating system, these are all things that guarantee your safety by using the laws of physics to stop bad things happening in your home.

IFRs have their own built-in thermostat in the fuel itself. As the reactor heats up, the fuel expands in the heat, which in turn causes the nuclear reaction to slow down. The reactor cannot overheat, so it cannot possibly meltdown. In addition, the reactor core is cooled by a liquid metal (sodium), which does not actually need to be pumped in order to cool the core. Turn off the cooling pumps, the liquid sodium will still circulate by convection, and the core will still be kept under control.

This is not theoretical, these tests have actually been done with a real nuclear reactor running at full power. Cooling systems were turned off, the normal safety systems were disabled, and the reactor was left to itself. It shut itself down safely with no human intervention, in as little as 5 minutes. Sorry to disappoint the Star Trek fans out there, there will be no warp-core breaches in an IFR!

Incidentally, those tests were performed just three weeks before the Chernobyl disaster happened. Chernobyl had none of these inherent safety features. Condemning IFRs because of Chernobyl would be like condemning air-travel because of the Hindenburg.

On to the second question, what about the waste from IFRs? Long-lived nuclear waste is produced by reactors that do not burn their fuel efficiently, they only extract a tiny fraction of the energy from it, about 1% or less. IFRs, on the other hand, burn their fuel almost entirely, so that they actually consume the material that other reactors would produce as waste. In fact, you can power an IFR with waste from other types of reactor, burning it completely, and thereby solve the problem of what to do with all the waste we already have! It’s like the difference between a garden fire that smoulders gently and releases a lot of toxic smoke, compared to an incinerator that burns the same stuff to ash in a far cleaner manner.

The waste that does come out of an IFR is radioactive for far less time than the waste that comes out of other types of reactor, precisely because the fuel is burnt so efficiently. Instead of remaining radioactive for tens of thousands of years, the waste from an IFR is radioactive for only about 300-500 years. That’s about one tenth of the age of the pyramid at Giza, so building something to contain it while it decays should be easy enough. The plastic we throw away will take longer to decay than that. IFRs also produce much less waste than other reactor types, so there’s less volume to handle.

What about the bomb-question, can IFRs be used to make weapons-grade plutonium? In principle, yes, since they do produce plutonium inside the core (and then burn it), there is plutonium to be had. In practise, it is far harder to process the fuel from an IFR to extract weapons-grade plutonium than it is to obtain such plutonium by any other means. For more information, see this Q&A by Steve Kirsch (search for “non-proliferation efforts”). Meanwhile, ask yourself this: which government are you trying to prevent from getting their hands on the plutonium?

There are many countries that already have nuclear power. Many of these have signed a non-proliferation treaty, and allow international oversight to verify that they are in compliance. If they were to convert their installations to IFRs, compliance would be easier to verify, and they could even consume the stockpiles of plutonium that they have amassed by using it as fuel in those same IFRs. This ‘nuclear club’ also happens to account for 80% of the worlds emissions of greenhouse gasses, so even if you restricted IFR technology to them alone, you would be able to make the world a safer and more habitable place, on several fronts.

Of the countries that don’t have nuclear power, many want it. The big question is, do they want it for weapons, or for electricity? Not telling them how to build nuclear power stations isn’t going to make them go away. Do we really think nations that want nuclear power for themselves will not get it sooner or later? Maybe it’s better to help them towards proliferation-resistant nuclear power instead of just leaving them to their own devices? Politically, as well as technically, IFRs can be a tool for reducing proliferation.

That leaves terrorism as a consideration. Stealing fuel from an IFR would be extremely difficult, because while it is in the core it is lethally radioactive. The reactor itself can be protected by several layers of containment vessels and concrete bunkers, over-topped with earth if you like, so it would be impervious to a missile attack (or an aircraft crashing into it, for example). Frankly, there are easier targets, and terrorists have shown that they are imaginative enough to find them.

So, at the end of the day, I’m puzzled as to why many environmental groups are ignoring the facts and taking such an anti-nuclear position. IFRs emit no greenhouse gasses. They provide constant power, not relying on variable sources like wind, waves, or sunshine. They can be made cheaply, because they can replace coal-fired power stations in-situ, using the existing generators and distribution infrastructure. They can eliminate our stockpiles of nuclear waste, and solve the nuclear-waste problem. They are inherently safe. And they can power the world for millennia.

So why aren’t we building them?

World Oceans Day, June 8th

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

The Aegean

The Aegean

Next Monday, June 8th, is World Oceans Day. At the risk of turning this blog into a diary of global eco-events, I’d like to draw your attention to it.

The idea to have a world-day for the oceans came in 1992 from Canada, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It’s been celebrated every year since then, but this year marks the first time it has official U.N. recognition. Henceforth, World Oceans Day will be celebrated on June 8th, every year.

You might think that since I live near Geneva, about as far away from the sea as it is possible to get in Western Europe, I would not have much to say about the sea. If you think that, you must be new to this blog (welcome!), the sea is one thing I can talk about for hours. I grew up in England, closer to the coast than most people there. Nobody in England is more than 70 miles from the sea, I grew up much closer than that, about one mile away from the shore, on an island, no less. I spent many a childhood summer day freezing in the cold water, picking my way over the stony beaches, trying to see what I could through the opaque grey-green waters of the north Kent coast (not much, as it happens). I collected foraminifera (tiny shells, less than 1 mm across) and looked at them under a microscope. I remember the first time I saw sea-anemones, on the beaches of Jersey on a family holiday. I’ve seen octopus and nudibranchs on crowded Greek beaches, and sharks and dolphins in the Maldives. Oh yes, I can safely say I love the sea.

The oceans are huge. They cover almost three-quarters of the surface of the earth, and something like three fifths of the earth is over a mile below the surface of the sea. There is an awful lot of seawater out there. So why do we need a world-day event to draw attention to the oceans? Well, as it turns out, the seas and oceans of the world are not in good shape, and it’s our fault, again. You can find out more about the threats to the oceans on the Marine Conservation Society website, here are a few of the highlights.

Everyone knows about global warming, and the melting of the polar ice-caps. That’s bad news for penguins and polar bears, but also for people. A large fraction of humanity lives near the coast, making a substantial part of their living from what they can haul out of the sea. Rising seas and warming waters will change that. Not only will islands and low-lying regions be lost under the waves, the ecosystems at the coastal fringes will suffer too. Coral reefs, for example, provide living space and nurseries for a great many species, and are essential to the marine environment. Even creatures that don’t live on or in them directly often depend on the animals that do. Excessively warm water leads to ‘coral bleaching’, which can kill it if the water stays warm for long enough. Bleaching events are more common than they used to be, and are predicted to become much worse over time. Despite some research showing that some corals may adapt to warmer waters, there is strong reason to believe that most corals will be killed by warm seas by the end of this century unless we make big cuts in our emissions of greenhouse gasses. Scientists are working to find ways to help coral survive, but they’re racing against the clock.



Globally, there’s an even bigger threat, ocean-acidification. The oceans absorb a great deal of the excess carbon dioxide that we are pumping into the atmosphere, and this is slowly turning the seas more acidic. This slows coral growth because it is harder for the coral to form its chalky skeleton. Other creatures, many of which are right at the bottom of the marine food chain, will suffer the same fate. Acidification of the oceans is a global problem by its very nature. It will affect reefs and other ecosystems worldwide, not just those near to cities and industries.

Overfishing is another major problem for the oceans. By depleting stocks of even a few species, we change the way entire ecosystems behave, often seriously. Tuna have been fished almost to extinction in the Mediterranean sea, and there is little sign that common sense will prevail to reduce the pressure on them. Tuna are predators, high up in the food chain. When you remove top predators, often the result is that a few species lower down the food-chain start to dominate, out-competing other creatures. The ecosystem becomes unbalanced, and may change its nature completely. It may not be enough to simply stop hunting the predators, the ecosystem may no longer be able to recover on its own.

Floating garbage is another serious problem. On the tiny atoll of Midway in the Pacific ocean, albatross often mistake floating plastic garbage for food, which they then feed to their chicks. That kills many of them, not surprisingly. Albatross aren’t meant to digest golf-tees, toothbrushes, and lego blocks.

Even the efforts we go to to protect the oceans and their inhabitants can often be misguided. I’m sure we’ve all heard of dolphin-safe tuna, it even got a mention in Lethal Weapon 2, released some 20 years ago. I’m fond of dolphins, like many people, but I was shocked to learn about just how much damage dolphin-safe tuna-fishing can do. The methods used to catch tuna without harming dolphins have a much higher rate of bycatch than other methods. ‘Bycatch’ is another word for ‘collateral damage’, animals accidentally killed while hunting a specific species at sea. Much of the bycatch in dolphin-safe tuna is in itself seriously endangered, far more so than dolphins themselves. No, dolphin-safe tuna is not a good thing for the marine environment.

Sunset on the Beach

Sunset on the Beach

More and more people are becoming aware of and involved in environmental issues. They are paying attention to the environmental cost of the goods they purchase, insisting on packaging that can be recycled, lower power consumption from electrical goods, or higher mileage from their cars, for example. But what can you change in your daily activities to help the oceans, especially if you live far from the sea? The Marine Conservation Society have some advice, and there’s also a page of hints at The Ocean Project. One obvious thing is to be more informed and cautious in your seafood purchases, both sites have suggestions there. If you prefer to avoid seafood altogether, simply buying organic food is a good idea. That encourages farmers to produce more of it, which means less pesticide in use. Reduced pesticide use means less of it getting into our rivers and from there into the sea, finally ending up in marine mammals like that dolphin we were trying to save a moment ago.

You can find out more about World Ocean Day at the World Ocean Network site. Maybe one of the events that they list is taking place somewhere near you. If not, there are plenty of web-based resources available, like the 24 hours in the Ocean online event from the Musée Nausicaä. I’ll certainly be following that for some of the day.

The Coral Reefs of the Maldives

Friday, May 1st, 2009
Anthias on the reef

Anthias on the reef

Verena Wiesbauer is a marine biologist, with particular knowledge of coral propagation and restoration techniques. In March 2009, she gave a lecture to the Maldives Science Society. Someone in the audience filmed it, and was kind enough post it on google-video, so now you can all enjoy watching “The Coral Reefs of the Maldives” as I have.

I learned a lot from this presentation, it’s very educational and entertaining. There’s a ‘pop-quiz’ early on, in which you are asked to identify what type of plant or animal is being shown. I pride myself on having correctly recognised Coriocella (though I did have to look up how to spell it), having seen them in Baa Atoll a few years ago.

Verena tells us that the Maldives sits on a volcanic chain which forms the basement of the islands. These volcanoes were active around 67 million years ago, so around the time the dinosaurs were dodging asteroids. Coral first started growing on these volcanoes some 55-57 million years ago. Since then, sea-level has changed several times, most recently after the last ice-age when it rose dramatically as the ice melted and retreated. The Maldivian atolls were flooded at that time, and the upward growth of coral only succeeded in creating islands around 3000-4000 years ago. The actual coral growth in the Maldives now forms a layer about 2000 metres thick. That’s a lot of coral!

soft coral

soft coral

Having shown us some of the animals that live in and around the Maldivian reefs, Verena goes on to tell us about some of the problems that are affecting the reefs today. Beach erosion is a serious problem. With two monsoons each year, coming from different directions, it is natural for the sand to shift from one side of an island to the other during the year. In 2000, half of the islands were sufferring from beach erosion. There are simple measures that the Maldivians can take to protect themselves from the worst effects of such erosian, such as not building too close to the shoreline and using sand and aggregates imported from India for construction (instead of dredged from their own reefs).

They can also protect the islands by protecting the living reef. A living reef will protect against beach erosion by reducing the force of the waves as they come inshore, a dead reef will soon be destroyed by the waves and offer little or no protection. A reef needs at least 50% live coral-cover to provide adequate protection, few of the Maldivian reefs have that at this time.

There are other threats to the reefs too. The Maldivians themselves generate a lot of waste, and they have nowhere to put it. The island of Thilafushi is a municipal landfill, and there is concern that all sorts of toxic waste from it may leak into the ocean and harm the environment.

gorgonian sea fan

gorgonian sea fan

Discarded fishing-lines cause a lot of damage too. One horrible slide in the presentation shows a turtle that became entangled in a fishing-line while it was young. It survived, and grew up with the fishing-line constricting its growth. I’ve never seen a turtle with an hour-glass figure before, and I hope I never do again.

Another major cause of damage to coral reefs is the tourist industry. Divers, even experienced ones, can cause a lot of damage. Verena gives a personal account of diving with tourists who lay down on the reef to watch sharks, and who were upset with her for not doing the same because she might scare the sharks away! I’ve seen divers who allowed their diving lamps to trail along the bottom of a reef like a wrecking-ball while they were concentrating on getting closer to a few manta-rays nearby.

Not surprisingly, divers with cameras cause more damage than those without, they’re focussed (literally!) on what they’re looking at, not what they’re bumping into. Diving from shore causes more damage than diving from boats, and night-diving causes more damage than diving during the day. Even without direct physical contact, reefs can be damaged by divers who kick up sediment with their fins, smothering the corals they have paid so much to see.

It’s not only divers, but also snorkellers, that damage reefs. Snorkellers will often stand on the reef to adjust their equipment, and can do a great deal of damage by careless contact. Verena cites a paper by W.R.Allison in 1996 which showed that snorkellers can can do an immense amount of damage in a short period of time.

Verena says that the dive-schools could give better briefings, for both divers and snorkellers. Her own experience is that people appreciate being reminded of the simple things they can do to reduce their personal impact. I know some dive-schools don’t like to impose on their divers, so will not mention such things in their briefings. You can always invite them to say something when they ask if there are any questions. Put your hand up and say “I have a question, do we have to be careful about what we touch on this dive?”. It’s worth a try!

Dive-schools should also respect the ‘carrying-capacity’ of dive-sites, and not visit them too frequently, so they have time to recover from each invasion. This is a particular problem in the Red Sea, where many reefs are seriously degraded by divers. Of course, that’s not easy when there are many dive-schools competing to take people to the most popular sites.

Individually, divers can take steps to reduce their impact even more. Those of you that dive with PADI can take the Peak Performance Buoyancy course (other organisations probably have something similar). You’ll find you dive better (i.e. use less air, are more relaxed) and do less harm to the reef because you have more control. You’ll see more on each dive, too, because you will spend less time fighting with your equipment and frightening fish with your thrashing, and more time looking around.

Coco-palm encourages tourists to preserve the environment

Coco-palm encourages tourists to preserve the environment

Tourism can also be a positive force. invented the slogan “When the buying stops, the killing can too“, and used it in their campaign against shark-finning. You can kill a shark for its fins only once, but if you leave it alive, tourists will pay again and again to come and see it when they dive.

Verenas’ presentation has an optimistic tone, she clearly loves her work. There are things that can be done to help the reefs, and she mentions some of the many restoration and conservation projects in the Maldives. She herself has assisted in the creation of an artificial reef at Huvafenfushi. I’ll end this post with a quotation she gave at the beginning of per presentation. It’s from Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist or poet (depending on who you ask):

In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught

It would be good if people were taught more about the world we live in today.

Particulate air pollution

Sunday, April 26th, 2009
Geneva valley on a clear day

Geneva valley on a clear day

This photo shows the Geneva valley on a good day. It was taken in the Jura, looking across Lac Leman to Mont Blanc, which is clearly visible, some 50 miles away. It’s a shame that views like this are something of a rarity these days, the visibility is often much worse.

Geneva under smog

Geneva under smog

This second photo shows a more typical view, taken in winter. The mountain in the background is the Saleve, just across the valley, far closer than Mont Blanc. The layer of smog is clearly visible and, if you had x-ray vision, you would see the suburbs of Geneva in the middle of it all. All those people living down there are breathing that stuff.

It has long been known that this ‘particulate air pollution‘ from fires, vehicles, and industrial activity can lead to all sorts of health problems. A study published in the The New England Journal of Medicine (Volume 360:376-386) in January 2009 shows that life expectancy increased in areas where particulate pollution was reduced, and that the more the pollution was reduced, the greater the increase in life-expectancy. Clean up the air and people live longer, what a surprise!

Another study suggests that traffic pollution can cause genetic changes to babies before they are born, making them more susceptible to asthma. That may go some way to explaining why asthma affects one child in ten across the UK.

In France, another recent study, Un rapport et un avis d’expertise sur la pollution de l’air par les particules fines et son impact sur la santé publié par l’Afsset (“a report and analysis of air pollution by find particles and their impact on public health”) concludes that there is no safe limit for exposure to this type of pollution, it affects health from the very lowest levels. In particular, the report says that:

Ce sont les expositions fréquentes, à des niveaux modérés de pollution, qui sont responsables de l’essentiel de l’impact sanitaire, et non les pics de pollution. En effet 97% de l’impact sanitaire est attribuable à des niveaux modérés, mais fréquents (inférieur à 50µg/m3) et seulement 3% aux pics.

It is the frequent exposures, at moderate levels of pollution, which are responsible for the majority of the impact on health, and not the peaks of pollution. In fact, 97% of the impact on health can be attributed to moderate but frequent levels of pollution (below 50µg/m3), and only 3% to the peaks.

Particulate pollution can even affect the weather, causing more lightning-strikes in the middle of the week when vehicle emissions are higher. If that’s not enough for you, black smoke is also responsible for half of the warming in the arctic, because it darkens the snow which can then melt faster because it absorbs more sunlight.

An unnecessary fire

An unnecessary fire

With a problem on that scale, is it worth individuals trying to do anything about it? I think so. If it’s true that many smokers would quit smoking for the sake of their pet, surely it’s reasonable to take some steps to protect ourselves too, or to reduce our own output of such pollution? In our part of the world, for example, we see a lot of people burning garden waste. This is a shame when it could be used for compost or disposed of at council facilities that can incinerate it properly.

Using the car less is another option. The Commission for Integrated Transport in the UK points out that driving children to school is a major contributor to road traffic, and that simply putting kids on the bus would improve things for all concerned. There would be less congestion at the school gates, fewer vehicles on the roads, less time taken from the parents, and the kids get to spend more time with their friends on the bus. The US Environmental Protection Agency are undertaking a program to monitor air quality at schools, they are that worried about it. They have a number of good suggestions for reducing your childs’ exposure to vehicle pollution at school, such as encouraging no-idling policies for vehicles that are loading, unloading, or waiting.

Dweezeljazz has written in the past about the reducing our pollution intake on car journeys, by using filters such as the XR-100 Car air purifier. We’ve used one for some time now, and it really does make a perceptible difference to the way we feel in the car.

XR-100 air filters, used (left) and unused (right)

XR-100 air filters, used (left) and unused (right)

The picture (right) shows a new filter for the XR-100, and one that has been used for 4 months. It’s rather shocking how filthy the used one is, especially when you consider that I don’t live or drive much in a big city. It certainly makes me want to stay away from the roads!

Earth Day 2009, it’s here!

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Earth Day 2009

Earth Day 2009

Just to remind you that tomorrow, April 22nd, is Earth Day 2009. Earth Day has been around for a long time, the first one being in 1970, some 39 years ago. It is hailed by many as being one of the cornerstones of the environmental movement, and this year it’s still as important as ever. More so, perhaps, as the need to act on climate change and pollution becomes ever more urgent.

You can look for Earth Day events near you on their site. If you can’t find anything, why not just do something for yourself? Our dear friend Shannon Ryan took part in the very first Earth Day, all those years ago, by walking to school instead of taking the bus.



Of course, no gentleman would ever do the math, but this clearly makes her an experienced lover of nature! You need only read Shannons’ blog “Chippers’ Alley” to see that for yourself, it’s full of the beautiful photos she takes on a regular basis, such as these mushrooms. Nice one, Shannon.

Whatever you do to mark the occasion, I wish you a Happy Earth Day 2009!