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Taking out the trash April 29, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in consumer, environment, learn, life, urban.
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Canadian icon
A few days ago, while I was walking along the sidewalk beside a gas station, I witnessed a 30-second non-verbal exchange that spoke volumes. The passenger in a truck filling up at the station dropped a cigarette package out the window. The pedestrian ahead of me — a tall, slim, ipod-and-shorts-clad athletic man — immediately stooped and picked up the offending piece of litter, showed it briefly to the startled passenger, then calmly dropped it in the nearby trash bin as he strolled by.

I braced myself for what might happen next: an apology, an insult? But there was no reaction. I glanced at the faces of the two guys in the truck as I walked by, and they seemed amused, as if they just saw somebody doing something silly. I felt like saying something to support the actions of the litter-nabbing pedestrian, but there was no confrontation, no chance for me to speak out against litterbugs, irresponsible behaviour, jerks… well, you know.

But that didn’t stop me from continuing an imaginary conversation in my head, however, as I reflected on other occasions when I have seen careless — as in, “I couldn’t care less” — people dropping their trash on the ground.

Like the time I was walking behind a mother and two young daughters, one with a new doll encased in plastic packaging. The daughter with the doll lagged behind as she worked to get the doll out of its packaging, and when she released the doll, she simply dropped the plastic packaging on the ground.

I promptly picked up the plastic packaging, caught up to the young girl and said, “You dropped this. Excuse me, you dropped this.” The girl looked at me blankly, and glanced at her mother, who had stopped and turned around. I pushed the packaging into the girl’s hand. “You dropped this,” I repeated, “and if it’s garbage, the garbage can is right over there.” I gestured to the garbage can a few steps away. She looked at her mother, but her mother just stood there, watching, saying nothing. I waited. The girl glared at me, but finally took the package and threw it into the garbage can, then rejoined her mother. I walked away, seething.

Do I need to say why I was seething, why I was incensed that someone could carelessly drop trash on the ground when there are recycling containers and garbage bins at every street corner? Do I sound old-fashioned (or just old) to complain about littering, to see it as a sign of disrespect for other people, as an act of vandalism against everyone who does their best to keep their neighbourhood or their city clean and tidy?

And it’s not only our cities — garbage dumped in the world’s waterways is getting so bad that some people are calling the ocean “the world’s largest landfill.”

Following the 2007 international clean-up of beaches in 76 countries, the Ocean Conservancy reported that volunteers gathered an incredible 2.3 million pounds of trash. The largest percentage of litter was cigarette butts. In the city, I think the dubious honour of a second-place prize would go to coffee cups.

Volunteers found 81 birds, 63 fish, 49 invertebrates, 30 mammals, 11 reptiles, and one amphibian entangled in debris such as plastic bags, fishing lines, fishing nets, six-pack holders, balloon and kite strings, glass bottles, and cans. Aside from urgent issues like pollution and harm to natural species caused by this littering, there’s the question of intent: is this the kind of heritage we want to leave the next generation?

cigarettes are top trashI know littering isn’t as important, in the scheme of things, as global warming, war, ethnic cleansing, HIV/AIDS and poverty, for example. But to me, it’s a sign of a bigger problem. It shows an apparent lack of willingness to take responsibility, to acknowledge that our actions — or inactions — affect other people. And that, I believe, is serious.

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Related Links:
Wired: “Drowning in an ocean of plastic”
BBC: “Author hits out at litter culture”
Ocean Conservancy website
“Litter: It’s often a different story on the street”


Claiming the Arctic April 24, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in arctic, Canada, diversity, environment, explore, global warming, nature, world.
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Northwest Passage - Globe & Mail

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
                                    “Northwest Passage”, by Stan Rogers

The dotted blue line of the new 200-mile limitCanada has one of the longest coastlines in the world. Although it borders on three oceans, until recently, it hasn’t paid much attention to the mostly frozen Arctic Ocean at its back door. That is now beginning to change.

Under the United Nations Law of the Sea convention, signed by Canada in 2003, coastal countries can extend their sovereignty beyond the usual 200-nautical mile limit recognized in international law if the seabed is an extension of the continental shelf.  Since Canada ratified the convention in 2003, it has until 2013 to submit scientific evidence to extend that limit.

That potentially gives Canada claim to an area the size of the Prairie provinces that could contain natural gas, oil and other resources. Canadian scientists are struggling against unpredictable ice conditions to map the ocean floor.

However, the resource-rich Lomonosov Ridge, which runs between Greenland and Russia, will be a bone of contention. Russia is claiming this undersea mountain range is part of Russian territory. In 2006, Canada and Denmark cooperated in a mapping project to try to show that the structure of the undersea Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the North American continent.

The Arctic Ocean is now being mapped

Canadian attention is also focused strongly on the ownership of the Northwest Passage. This past summer, satellite images showed that the passage between Canada’s arctic islands was ice-free for the first time in recorded history. And there are predictions that the it may be open for much of the summer in as little as 15 years.

If these predictions come true, the Northwest Passage could become a busy shipping route. The Northwest Passage is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the current shipping route through the Panama Canal. That’s about two weeks saved in travelling time.

Under the UN Law of the Sea, all ships are guaranteed passage through international straits. Should the winding Northwest passage between the northern islands be considered an international strait, or part of Canadian waters? Perhaps the best solution is to open the passage and govern it, as Nunavut resident Paul Kaludjak suggests: “The best way to have our sovereignty accepted by the international community is not to restrict entry to territory, but to facilitate use of it in accord with Canadian regulations.”

Canadian rangers patrol the ArcticThe Arctic lands are the traditional home of the Inuit nations, and their livelihoods depend on the rich resources in the harsh northern habitat. The Canadian Rangers, who patrol and police the North, are predominantly Inuit. Whatever decisions are made about the Arctic will affect the environment and the livelihood of these northern peoples.

The goal of the UN Law of the Sea is to share the ocean resources fairly between coastal countries. We don’t need a cold war over the Arctic; there’s room for everyone to “play nice” as long as environmental studies and regulations are put in place first.

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Related LInks:
…Or Something (blog): “Geology, geopolitics, and the Law of the Sea
Nunatsiaq News: “Measuring Mountains Under the Sea”
Seed: “Deep Space: The last great land rush on the planet will be at the bottom of the ocean”
Geology.com: “Northwest Passage — Map of Arctic Sea Ice”
CBC: “Canada’s Arctic claim work challenged by ice, logistics”
National Post: “Canada’s Arctic mapping key to resource claims”
CBC In Depth: “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty: Drawing a line in the water”
“Sovereignty and Inuit in the Canadian Arctic”

Wired: “Today, Countries Battle for a Piece of the Arctic. Tomorrow? The Moon”
CBC In Depth: “The Northwest Passage: The Arctic Grail”

CBC multimedia: “Breaking the Ice: Canada and the Northwest Passage”

A bicycle revolution April 22, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, consumer, energy, environment, journey, learn, life, world.
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carlton street 2
Originally uploaded by Seeing Is

I rode my bike to work today. Not because it’s Earth Day, but because I have a class tonight and riding will get me home and to a late supper a lot faster than walking. But since it is Earth Day today, it’s a good time to think about the cost of commuting.

I’m fortunate enough to live only a 20-minute walk from work. I live and work downtown, within a few minutes of the Don Valley and only a short bike ride from Lake Ontario. I own a car, but I usually save it for out-of-town trips. Besides, parking is expensive!

One thing I’ve noticed, as a pedestrian and occasional cyclist (and even less frequent driver), is that cars in the city are most times at a disadvantage. Traffic — and drivers — get snarly during rush hour, and a driver can sit at an intersection waiting for three lights to change before being able to turn left (I’ve been in that situation, knowing full well I could have walked home in the time I took to turn one corner!). Cars double-park or stop in bicycle lanes because there’s no convenient parking spots left near the Tim Hortons. And then there are the risks of bad drivers, taxis doing sudden u-turns, pedestrians dashing across four lanes right in front of you, cyclists weaving through stopped cars and barrelling the wrong way down a one-way street…

But while I’ve had quite a few scares — and a lot of stress — as a driver, my only accidents (except one as a new driver) have been as a cyclist. I’ll tell you briefly about these two incidents, because I learned something important on each occasion.

1. Head-on: About 15 years ago, I had a head-on collision with a car. Literally. I was on my bicycle, turning left with the traffic, but the car which turned with me was a lot faster, and I found myself in the middle of the intersection in the path of an oncoming car. I don’t remember the collision itself, but I know that I managed to twist sideways on my bike and hit the car windshield with the back of my head. Yes, I was wearing a helmet; it saved my life, or at least saved me from serious head injuries. The car windshield was shattered, my body left a large dent on the car hood, my bicycle was twisted, and I was knocked unconscious. But I walked away from the hospital with only a few bad bruises. Lesson: wear a helmet!

2. Face first: The second incident happened last fall. I was leaving a class, in a hurry to get home, and started pedalling quite energetically. I was crossing the street in front of the school and turning to go left when my front bicycle tire slipped into a streetcar track. The next thing I knew, my face was on the pavement, my glasses were a few feet away, and my first thought was, “oh no, not again!” Fortunately, there were no cars coming, and several people came to help me right away, including a doctor who asked someone to fetch ice for me. My helmet didn’t help me this time (because I fell face forward), but I still managed to walk away with some bad bruises and some dizziness that disappeared after a month. Lesson: don’t be in a hurry!

hitching posts

This past Sunday was the first time I had been on my bike since that incident, and I have to say that I felt no hesitation. I love the feeling of gliding on my bicycle, not being caught in rush-hour traffic, not having to pay for parking. And I really like the way bicycling is for people of all ages, that I can ride my bike even when my body gets old and creaky!

And when I read about other cities where bicycling has become part of the transportation grid, about the way commuting by bike is part of the culture in places like Holland and Denmark, I feel like I’m part of a revolution. And this revolution is good for our planet. Happy Earth Day!

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Related Links:
Commute By Bike blog — check out the Gas Savings Calculator
11 Most Bike-Friendly Cities in the World
New York Times: “In Portland, Cultivating a Culture of Two Wheels”

Do earthquakes swarm? April 12, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in environment, explore, learn, life, nature, science, world.
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Swarm of Bees poster by Malcolm Warrington

It’s not every day that you read about a “swarm” of earthquakes. Yet the story about a swarm of hundreds of earthquakes off the Oregon coast is all over the news this morning.

According to the Oxford dictionary, a swarm is a large number or dense group of insects, birds, small animals, persons, etc., moving about in a cluster; when referring to bees, it means to congregate in large numbers; when referring to a place: be overrun, be crowded, abound…

A word like “cluster” would have seemed more accurate to me. “Swarm” sounds like a negative term, a warning that Westcoasters are about to be overrun by a swarm of earthquakes.

And maybe they are. Geophysicists have reported 600 earthquakes in 10 days in a basin 320 kilometres southwest of Newport, near the Juan de Fuca fault. One quake was as big as magnitude 5.4.

More unusual, however, is the sound of these earthquakes. Scientists have been listening in on underwater life for 17 years, using hydrophones (underwater microphones) — placed by the navy to listen for submarines during the Cold War — and they’ve never heard anything like this. What do underwater earthquakes sound like? Thunder.

underwater volcanic vent

I’m wondering if the earthquakes are caused by a new hyperthermal vent system, like the one in the photo to the right.

A story earlier this year noted how a team of seismologists have been studying these vent systems, working under 2,500 meters of water on the East Pacific Rise, some 565 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico. They planted seismometers around an ocean ridge to record tiny, shallow earthquakes — in this study, 7,000 of them, over 7 months in 2003 and 2004.

The researchers interpret the quakes as the result of cold water passing through hot rocks and picking up their heat, a process that shrinks the rocks, and cracks them, creating the small quakes.

If these hyperthermal vents are the source, maybe the news reports should be referring to a “burp” or a “rumble” of earthquakes. I am tempted to use “explosion” of earthquakes, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Speaking of collective nouns, does anyone have a good suggestion for a group of bloggers? One suggestion here is a “waffle” of bloggers. Any other ideas?

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Related Links:
CBC: “Scientists baffled by unusual swarm of hundreds of quakes of the Oregon coast”
Science Daily: “Earthquakes under Pacific floor reveal unexpected circulatory system”
National Geographic: “Swarm Behaviour”
Collective Nouns