Tag Archives: Science

The Science of Survival: Sit down and have a snack!

22 Aug

It’s very easy for us to get lost in the woods. Science has discovered that people are constitutionally incapable of walking in straight lines when they don’t have markers they know how to follow:

A Mystery: Why Can’t We Walk Straight? from NPR on Vimeo.

So it’s helpful to learn how to track and trail, and how to use natural features as “handholds” so you have a sense of how you fit in the landscape. The technique ranges from dead-simple to highly complex, beginning with the easy part: pick a relatively distant, immobile feature (mountain, bump in the landscape, really big tree on the horizon) and determine which direction you want to go, relative to it. Now, as you travel, just keep that feature in sight at about the same angle to your body as it was when you picked your direction. So if you think you should go straight ahead and there’s a distinctive mountain top off to your right, keep it to your right as you walk. Remember to reassess periodically and pick a new feature, or you will manage to walk in a beautiful circle all around that mountain…

When I teach my wilderness skills and survival classes, I always say the number one thing to do if you get lost or find yourself in a frightening situation is: “sit down, and have a snack.” You need to get out of the cycle of self-doubt and settle your judgement, as well as boost your energy for the challenging decisions you’re about to make as you try to get found or simply stay safe. And if you’re sitting down, you’re resting and you can hydrate, check your map, rearrange your gear, or clean the dirt out of your boots. These are all useful survival activities! Now science comes along to support my advice:

The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff.

via Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? – NYTimes.com.

So while it’s no substitute for the many other things you should know how to do or for pure common sense and survival instinct in terms of getting through a sticky situation in the woods, just remember that science backs it up: when in trouble outdoors, first thing to do is sit down and have a snack.

Reviving Dead Stuff

9 Aug

Last week I attended the National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration (NCER 2011) in Baltimore, MD.  It was a four-and-a-half day conference, with about 700 attendees, almost all of whom gave presentations or posters.  It was packed, exhausting, and exhilarating!  It was great to meet so many people in such an amazing field: the field of bringing dead stuff back to life again.

I think there’s a lot of communicative value in the concept of ecosystem restoration, and a lot of room for political maneuvering and public support.  Storm Cunningham of REVITALIZ made this point in a workshop, and I agree with him: people love fixing dead things.  It’s so much easier to sell the idea of making some dirty, brown place green again and see that transformation than it is to rally uninterested citizens around contributing money or taxes for preservation of a place they never go to anyway.  So here’s the question: can revitalization, renewal, and restoration be tied to climate change somehow?

I think one of our best bets in this regard may be in coastal area restoration, where regaining some of the lost functions of the ecosystem will make shorelines more resilient to extreme weather, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusion into aquifers.

A design firm's vision for the restoration of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or "MRGO".

Bat guano, bones, rock mining, and clean water

7 Jul

Yale e360 has an article today about the importance and future scarcity of phosphate, a key mineral in fertilizers and therefore essential to our ability to feed ourselves.  Read the article and you can learn that phosphate, which is a key ingredient in animal bones and supplies phosphorous to plants, has long been used to boost fertility in agriculture and it is now inseparable from modern farming practices.  During the era of the British empire the mineral was shipped around the world in the form of bones to be ground into bonemeal, and later it was shoveled up from huge historic piles of bat and bird guano.  Some tiny islands in the Pacific, that were essentially just bird colonies, were leveled almost to the ever-encroaching tide line as their guano was mined and shipped away.  Now, phosphate is mined largely from deposits of mineral-rich rock, with most of the world’s exports coming from Morocco.  Other significant deposits are in the US and China, which use them mainly for their own use and don’t export them.  This brings me to this interesting passage, at the bottom of the article:

Phosphate strip mines are environment wreckers. They produce around 150 million tons of toxic spoil a year. Their massive draglines, huge slurry pipes, and mountainous spoil heaps dominate the landscape for tens of miles in key mining zones, whether in the North African desert or in Florida, a state that still provides three-quarters of American farmers’ phosphate needs.

The world’s largest mine is at Four Corners in an area known as Bone Valley in central Florida. The Four Corners mine covers 58,000 acres, an area five times the size of Manhattan. It is owned by Mosaic, a company recently spun off from agribusiness giant Cargill. Next door is the world’s second-largest mine, South Fort Meade. But South Fort Meade is living on borrowed time — its expansion plans are being opposed by local groups, and unless it can expand, the mine will have to close.

As the drag mines move south in Florida, anger has been growing about the environmental impacts. A million tons of mine waste, containing lows levels of radioactivity, are already piled up at dump sites around the state, and disputes are growing over promised mine cleanups. Rivers have dried up, and settling ponds have leaked.

Last year, the local chapter of the Sierra Club went to court to block Mosaic’s plans to extend the life of the South Fort Meade mine by expanding its footprint. The group is concerned about the fate of the Peace River, a vital source of Florida’s drinking water; it says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave approval for the expansion without first conducting a full environmental audit. The case is unresolved to date.

As for the impending shortages of phosphate, will technological advances and market forces solve the problem? We certainly waste a lot of this most valuable resource. Globally, we allow some 37 million tons of phosphorus to spill into the environment each year. It mostly flows down sewers and agricultural drains into rivers and lakes, where it feeds the growth of toxic cyanobacteria and consumes oxygen, creating eutrophication and “dead zones.”

Ah, eutrophication.  Now we’re looking at water quality.  As a matter of fact, these tremendous phosphate mines in Florida sit at the western edge of the Everglades, consuming huge quantities of land and wetland:


The movie above ends with the plea “Please stop phosphate mining.”  It’s not that simple.  Our entire agricultural model is built upon the availability of phosphorous inputs, and there is no engineered replacement for mined phosphorous (unlike nitrogen, which can be produced from petroleum).  The proposal of another anti-mining advocate is not much better:

Fortunately, the solution is easy. We did it for our first 100,000 years, and we’re the only creatures not currently doing it. The answer is eat, poo, and die in one place.

That doesn’t mean we all have to be farmers, but it does mean we need to be localvores and get over being sqweamish about the fact that we’re animals that are part of the web of life.

Plant food in your yard. Buy the food you don’t grow from local farmers. Insist on pasture raised meat. Compost every organic material you can find. Crap in a bucket. When it’s time to die, have yourself planted in the ground without preservatives so that a tree can build itself out of the molecules you’ve been using.

It’s just not practical for going on 7 billion people to “eat, poo, and die in one place” anymore.  The phosphorous that contributes to poor water quality comes not just directly from mining (permitted in Florida by the Army Corps, which is also responsible for the restoration of the nearby Everglades, which suffers from eutrophication) but from farm runoff all over the world–and we need those farms.  Their productivity would drop dramatically without added phosphorous.

What to do?  It’s too hard to say.  As a finite resource we may be approaching “peak phosphate,” and as we are currently seeing with concerns about “peak oil,” it is very hard to make a global switch in fuels or raw materials used at such a large scale.  Just as with oil, however, we will need to find technological, economic, and behavioral ways to wean ourselves off of phosphate before price and scarcity make it nigh impossible to find.


Thanks to Gabriel Mejias for a tip about the e360 article!

“Essayons!”: The Army Corps of Engineers and Water Management

28 Jun

In pursuing my Master of Environmental Science degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I conducted research on the Army Corps of Engineers to examine whether and how the institutional culture of the agency has been changing in response to increased societal pressure to concentrate on environmental management and protection.  The unique perspective this research gave me on the culture and history of the Corps inspired this analysis on the agency’s current challenges.

This is the first in a series of posts about the Army Corps.  This first post contains background on the Army Corps, its history of flood control management, and some of the factors behind the strength of this year’s flooding.

Army Corps red and white castle logo

The Army Corps of Engineers usually lies pretty low.  Engineers speaking earnestly while wearing hard hats and castle logos do not make for very tempting paparazzi bait, so the last time we heard this much about them was five years ago, when the levees failed in New Orleans during Katrina.  Five years before that they were also in the news, when journalist and author Mike Grunwald wrote a series for The Washington Post detailing pork-barrel spending, economic boondoggles, environmental destruction, and other ills that he considers the hallmarks of the agency.

2011 Spring Flooding in Minot, ND. From ND Dept. of Emergency Services

We’re beginning to hear from the Corps again as the divisions on the shores of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries are forced to make tremendous decisions day after day in order to deal with the record-smashing flooding in that region. These rivers, along with the Ohio river, cover over 1 million square miles of the United States.   More small communities and tracts of cropland fall victim daily to inundation as levees either fail due to the incoming cascades of water or are deliberately destroyed in order to spare an urban or industrial center downstream.

Interesting–it turns out that when the Army Corps makes the news, it’s usually for something terrible.  It almost makes you feel sorry for them.

Continue reading

Climate change: do not, I repeat, do not be alarmed

15 Jun

A recent post on Grist  highlights the writings of a guy who really thinks hard about nexus and connections, Bill McKibben of 350.org.  His May Washington Post op-ed was turned into a video mashup (below) by Stephen Thompson of Plomomedia, and it is must-see.  I was going to comment further about the connections between climate change and extreme weather events, but well, you should just watch the video or read the op-ed and see for yourself.

One point, though: it is not pessimistic or apocalyptic to point out the reality of what is going on right now.  We need to adapt to climate change as it is and as it will be on the ground, and there’s plenty of tough adjustment to be done without scaring one another about far-off probabilities.  This video uses current news footage to show what’s happening now.  It’s frightening because it’s a wake-up call, but we can deal with it if we get to work now.